It’s surely a mother’s worst nightmare, or at least one of them: you’re at home, watching Crimewatch on the sofa, and you suddenly realise that the shadowy figure in the grainy CCTV footage on the television looks uncannily like your son. Isn’t that him, brutally assaulting a homeless person?
The Dinner (I nostri regazza) tells the story of two sets of well-to-do parents who fear that their respective teenage son and daughter may have carried out this vicious crime. As it becomes clear that their children really are the culprits, the resulting emotional fallout threatens to tear the parents’ relationships apart.
Both sets of parents are wealthy and respected. On one side, there’s paediatric doctor Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his wife, Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). On the other, there’s preening defence lawyer, Massimo (Alessandro Gassman), who’s Paulo’s brother, and his second wife Sofia (Barbora Bobulova). Each family member reacts in their own way to the crime as it unfolds. One refuses to believe their child’s guilt. Another is willing to provide an alibi to keep the truth from coming out. Still another thinks the teens should go straight to the nearest police station and turn themselves in.
Based on the novel of the same name by Herman Koch, The Dinner is economically shot and well acted – Gassman, in particular, is superb as Massimo. Although initially showing all the outward emotion of a vampire, he later displays a quiet, poignant horror as he observes his daughter’s ice-cold lack of contrition.
Director Ivano De Matteo constructs a knotty drama, as a seemingly unrelated road rage incident feeds into the strained relationship between Paolo and Massimo. He even finds time to slot in an impressive long take in a swanky restaurant, where the camera tracks a couple as they swagger to their table, before the lens wanders off into the kitchen to observe some gastronomical wizardry in progress. But while everyone involved – including cinematographer Vittorio Omodei Zorini – tries their best, it has to be said that not every element of The Dinner’s story hangs together as well as it could.
Teenagers Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) and Benedetta (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) are a little too coldly sociopathic to be believable: the story would have arguably been deepened had it delved more deeply into their strange and apparently poisonous relationship rather than skew it so heavily from the parents’ perspective. What could drive two apparently normal, well-adjusted youngsters from stable backgrounds to commit such a crime? Why is the daughter so callous about it in the aftermath? And if the son is indeed so guilt-ridden as to be physically sick in the days that followed, why does he continue to wear the same coat at school? Surely even a sociopath would get rid of the clothing they were wearing when the incident occurred?
There’s a touch of Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin in The Dinner and its divide between parent and child, or Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did, in that it’s about a privileged youth whose life is undone by an outburst of drunken violence. But it lacks either that film’s low-key believability or We Need To Talk About Kevin’s horror undertones, Ramsay’s astute direction or its superb dramatic nuance, courtesy of Tilda Swinton’s stunning lead performance as a guilt-ridden mother. De Matteo’s film repeatedly switches perspectives, but fails to really get too far under the skin of each character and what they’re thinking. Gassman’s lawyer aside, the characters remain two-dimensional archetypes – the doting mother, the good-hearted doctor, the it-girl teenager, the withdrawn geek – from beginning to end.
With the crime glibly put down to a generation’s obsession with violent videos on the internet and its hermetic, mobile-phone-led lifestyle, The Dinner ceases to be a realistic drama and instead slips into hysterical melodrama, its abrupt conclusion further underlining its lack of real-world nuance. Running at a lean 90 minutes, The Dinner offers a diverting slab of parental angst and a what-would-I-do-in-that-situation talking point to mull over afterwards, but offers little that really sticks in the memory.
The Dinner screens at the London Film Festival on the 16th and 18th October.
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