Venice 2014: The Obscene Life

Director: Renato de Maria
Cast: Clement Metayer, Isabella Ferrari, Roberto de Francesco
Length: 85 mins
Country: Italy

My first thought once The Obscene Life (La Vita Oscena) began was: where have I seen this before? The Obscene Life, based on Aldo Nove’s novel by the same name, is Renato de Maria’s newest film, boasting an international cast and an ambitious mission: to show the struggles of a young poet in modern society (the novel is a similar piece, one that attempts to speak ‘the language of the youth’). Premiering in this year’s Venice Film Festival, it is 85 minutes of witnessing a handsome young man descend into alcohol, drugs and sex, sadly, without the rock ‘n’ roll. It is a story told one too many times, and the only obscene thing about The Obscene Life is its snobbish pretentiousness.

The introduction of the film sets up a neat oedipal framework: Andrea (Clement Metayer) talks about his love for his mother, a beautiful, smiling, joyful woman (Isabella Ferrari).  “For most of the time, it was only the two of us. And it was the best thing in the world”. Talk about submitting to the Italian stereotype of a son, too attached to his mother. This idyll is broken when she is diagnosed with cancer and Andrea’s father (Roberto de Francesco) suddenly dies from a heart attack. Eventually, the mother dies as well, leaving Andrea alone in the world. He doesn’t even go to her funeral.

It seems as the family bond is broken by death, Andrea’s life becomes shattered too. Not leaving the house, smoking joints and drinking whiskey, he muses about the pointlessness of life. Eventually getting to Milan, he looks at a possible university, then turns around and goes away on his skateboard. Did I forget to mention the skateboard?

Having not died, he pursues sex, lying blank-faced on the bed while women bounce off and on him, until, having ended up in a hospital, Andrea experiences an epiphany, enrols in university (philosophy, eh) and seems… happy?

Finally, Andrea decides to die, following his favourite poet George Trakl, and thus buys 17 grams of cocaine. Forming a shape of a crime-scene corpse out of blow, he snorts it vehemently. Having not died, he pursues sex, lying blank-faced on the bed while women bounce off and on him, until, having ended up in a hospital, Andrea experiences an epiphany, enrols in university (philosophy, eh) and seems… happy?

Alas, the mythology of the artist. A young man, going through the nine circles of Hell to arrive at his destination: poetry. Yet the “nine circles of Hell”, the attempted obscenity is not there. All we witness is blank-faced (handsome though, I admit) Metayer, riding about on his skateboard, posing typical adolescent questions and snorting some cocaine. Boom. Thus, when Andrea decides to kill himself – and fails – one finds oneself rooting for his death.

Perhaps the one obscene thing about this film is its portrayal of women. The female body is an object to be devoured by Andrea’s eyes, covering his walls, dominating his mind. He possesses it without a wince, buys it, looks at it. Once the boundary between fantasy and reality is eliminated, a long-legged blonde open-shirted nurse comes along, and we witness about 3 minutes of intense shots of her lips, whispering ‘everything is going to be fine’. Sadly, numerous breasts do not save a film. The objectification is simply enraging.

The Obscene Life might be pardoned for its soundtrack, an eclectic mix of ambience and rhythm, slightly reminiscent of the soundtrack for Drive, and its elegant cinematography. Clement Metayer does have a flare about him, a certain gentility in his eyes and performance, yet he is constrained by the limits of the mediocrity of the narrative.

All in all, a beautiful and useless film. It finishes with a monologue that could have been written by Richard Curtis, attempting a coup de grâce with a much-too-familiar line of “we’re all stories in the end, this is all relatable”, presenting Andrea’s journey as one leading to happiness and enlightenment: he is now a poet. However, stories like this have been told one too many times. Please, don’t tell them anymore.

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