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'L'Attesa': Two Women Wait, Perhaps In Vain

Lou de Laage and Juliette Binoche in <em>L'Attesa (The Wait)</em>.
Courtesy of Oscilloscope Films
Lou de Laage and Juliette Binoche in L'Attesa (The Wait).

Set amid Sicily's stark volcanic landscape, L'Attesa (The Wait) is a visually powerful, impeccably acted mood piece. But the movie is not for the literal-minded — a group that, at times, includes director and co-writer Piero Messina.

The idea for the film came from Luigi Pirandello's play, The Life I Gave You, and its theatrical origins survive in the many scenes that feature just two actors, Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage. They play Anna, a French-born widow who has long lived in a remote villa near Mt. Etna, and Jeanne, a younger Frenchwoman who has just arrived.

Jeanne is there to visit Giuseppe, her boyfriend and Anna's son, but finds herself in the hushed aftermath of a funeral. Mirrors are cloaked in black, and tongues are tied. Anna can't bring herself to tell the newcomer what's happened, and Jeanne doesn't figure it out for the longest time. Viewers will probably be quicker on the uptake.

The latest in a string of grieving-survivor roles that began with Three Colors: Blue, Binoche's Anna shows a fetishistic attachment to her son's things, notably an air mattress filled with his breath. Jeanne, whose relationship with Giuseppe was intermittent and apparently turbulent, is better equipped to move on — if only someone will tell her what happened.

Like Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, L'Attesa transpires during Easter week. This timing, and the opening funeral, allows Messina to frame the story with images of death and resurrection. In the opening scene, the camera almost caresses the crucifix that darkly presides over the local church. And the movie's Fellini-like climax is staged during a solemn procession of hooded men, where the director indulges a magical-realist flourish.

In between, L'Attesa is more French. Anna and Jeanne get to know each other in the kitchen, while swimming, and on excursions to local tourist attractions. For Anna, of course, becoming acquainted with Jeanne is also learning about Giuseppe.

At one point, Jeanne meets two young men and invites them to Anna's austere home for dinner. Everyone drinks, eats, and flirts, showing that life goes on, spontaneously — even if Jeanne and a guy dance to Leonard Cohen's "Waiting for the Miracle," not one of the all-time-great party tunes. (Other portentous musical choices include the XX's "Missing" and, inevitably, an Arvo Part lament.)

Heard but unanswered cellphone messages advance — while also stalling — the story. They demonstrate that Anna and Jeanne do indeed live in the modern (if not precisely contemporary) world. Yet the overall impression is of someplace out of time. The director expertly uses weathered buildings and lifeless terrain as visual equivalents of Anna and Jeanne's weekend in limbo.

Messina served as assistant director on Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, and he shares that filmmaker's flair for balletic cinematography. The camera swoops and cranes, and sometimes turns subjective, as when conveying the birth-like experience of surfacing from the depths of a lake.

Perhaps this is just because of the movie's solemn theme, but Messina does not share Sorrentino's interest in shifts of tone. The movie remains stubbornly minor-key, enlivened only by Binoche and de Laage's naturalistic performances. L'Attesa offers striking images of grief and rebirth, but it's most persuasive when depicting everyday life.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.