Here is a film that really disturbed me. It’s called Hungry Hearts and it’s made by the Italian director Saverio Costanzo, who clearly enjoys Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy but has less positive feelings about the difficulties of raising a child. But, as what often makes Polanski’s movies so effective, inspired technique can work horrifying, if (in this case, and Polanski’s) alienating wonders with material that its maker is hostile towards, or at least skeptical of.
Costanzo’s new movie relies heavily on the accumulation of dread. It does not win us over with big surprises, uncertainty, or unruly plot twists. While the aforementioned devices have their place in the horror/thriller genre, Costanzo is exploring the genre from an unique angle, prodding different nerve endings. Many viewers will criticize this film for its over-determined nature, calling its seemingly unnerving events a preordained chain of implausible contrivances. Certainly, Costanzo makes it clear where Hungry Hearts is heading, but without that sense of inevitability, the film would lose its very eerie essence: what occurs in this story is beyond our characters’s control.
In the film, the newlyweds Jude (Adam Driver) and Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) have such contrasting values toward parenthood it’s difficult not to foresee a not-so-uplifting result. Both Jude and Mina are young and giddily in love indeed, but they come from different ethnic backgrounds. Jude is American and Mina is Italian. They meet awkwardly in a bathroom, fall quickly in love, and soon are in wedlock. Yes, they make each other laugh and there’s undeniably a connection. But do they really know each other? This question is what Hungry Hearts eventually, and in astutely creepy fashion, puts to ask.
The couple move into a narrow, hermetically sealed New York apartment with hallways only navigable by shuffling sideways, and bedrooms the size of a modest walk-in closet. That also means whoever is in the unit isn’t far from whoever else is inside, and thus could be watching the other at any moment. Costanzo and his crew appear to shoot most of the apartment with Go-Pro cameras, creating this fish-eye view of the inhabitants like we’re watching their life through a spy hole. We’re like the next door neighbours these characters never met – and never will.
It is here that Jude and Mina try to raise their baby boy, and where they discover that their m.o. for raising a child is not exactly harmonious. Mina relies on tenacious motherly instincts, which involve sparing the child of daylight, and feeding him no meat and only a strange oil that stops him from absorbing nutrients. Jude’s methods are, one might say, more reasonable; he wants to keep his son well-fed with meat in his diet, and also have time in the day for a little bit of exercise. Mina prefers the little one to stay at home, in her arms, and safe from the noise and contamination of the outdoors.
From here, as Nicola Piovani’s palpable string score almost too insistently suggests, the couple’s relationship heads down a dark path, where love and trust grow fainter and fainter. Unbeknownst to Mina, Jude consults their family doctor (Jake Weber) about the domestic issue. He warns that their baby boy is dangerously underweight and that Jude should see it as “a race” to bring his son up to normal weight. It would have been interesting to see Costanzo evaluate the doctor’s training against Mina’s intuition, taking neither’s side and allowing both to share some validity. Instead, the film takes a firm stance against Mina and we’re meant to condemn her point-of-view even when the film never allows us to fully understand it.
Jude resorts to taking the boy to a local church and feeding him bits of turkey. Jude’s mother Anne (Roberta Maxwell), essentially the Ruth Gordon character from Rosemary’s Baby, senses a bizarre tension between her son and his wife, and immediately inquires. While unforthcoming at first, Jude eventually explain to his mother what Mina is up to and we watch as Anne’s own motherly instincts kick in and she fights for her grandson’s survival. Adam retains love for his wife, but Anne is less sympathetic. “You’re insane,” she coldly says to her. We wouldn’t disagree.
What’s impressive about Hungry Hearts is its eerie minimalism. There’s not a huge variety of shots in every scene. Costanzo hangs the camera on the apartment wall as if we’re not flies but lampshades. Faces often press against the lens, distorting their eyes and nostrils (imagine what Adam Driver’s face, already having a peculiar bone structure, would then look like). Costanzo achieves a kind of grotesquerie in the images that some may dismiss as amateur filmmaking, but this critic found to be very effective. He doesn’t aim for clean slickness, but an off-kilter, sooty asymmetry in his compositions.
It’s also nice to witness Driver, typically that strangely oversized best friend with a croaky voice that relays offhand witticisms, in a more “serious” role as a new father who’s a bit uncertain of himself and does the best he can while trying not to lose his temper. Rohrwacher also sends us chills as a woman who is almost too good at communicating her physical and mental deterioration. Skinny with needle-thin hair, the Italian actress is not far from Mia Farrow’s own Rosemary (she might as well be yelling, “What have you done to him? What have you done to his eyes, you maniacs!”). The two actors, who both won awards at the Venice Film Festival for their performances in this film, use their chemistry to deliberately tear it apart as the story demands.
Hungry Hearts is about degradation. It rips the very fabric of Jude and Mina’s relationship, and fails to repair it. The audience is left to watch the rip entirely tear off- like that sleeve scene at the end of Hitchcock’s Saboteur – without a needle to sow it back together.