The BackShop Journal

A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Perfect Strangers (Italy, 2016)

People bear secrets. They don one persona in front of the others, even best childhood friends, and sometimes don't revert to their true selves even when there's no one around. Some don't even know who they really are. Often they assume a different character for every occasion and every person they interact with. This conversion happens daily even (or especially) in front of a long-term spouse, and people are so used to it they are frequently unaware of the transformation. Italian dinner-party-go-awry drama Perfect Strangers breaks open the personal secrecy within families and a circle of intimate friends.

Rocco and Eva (played by Marco Giallini and Kasia Smutniak) invite three of Marco's best childhood friends, together with their wives. The divorced Pepe is supposed to come with his girlfriend, but he says she's sick and couldn't come. The friendly and talkative atmosphere reveals how much everyone enjoys such get-togethers. The action starts rising when Eva suggests a dare game: everyone is to put their mobile phone on the table on which they are dining, showing all the messages received and talking to callers on the speaker phone, thus proving to others they have nothing to hide. Most are reluctant, but all ultimately agree because they don't want their friends, and especially their spouses, to think they are hiding something. The tension is built when Lele (Valerio Mastandrea) asks the single friend, Peppe (Giuseppe Battiston) to switch phones, which look the same, because his lover sends him a photo of herself every night at 10 P.M. Peppe reluctantly agrees. By the end of the night, we find out that Eva is sleeping with Cosimo (Edoardo Leo), who got his other lover pregnant. Peppe is gay, and Lele, unable to extricate himself from the lies, admits that the angry male colleague who calls is his clandestine boyfriend. Marriages and friendships come crumbling down after the dark side of all the participants in the dinner game are suspensefully uncovered.

This film, as much as it is a commentary on the complex nature of romantic relationships, marriage and adultery, also discusses the role our mobile phones, or contemporary electronic devices, play in our lives. They are rightfully called "black boxes" in the movie. Sure enough, people had hauled secrets before the invention and proliferation of cell phones, but the beloved gadgets have recently developed into sunless closets full of confidential information, into sin- and dirt-carrying repositories. In a display of perhaps contrived symbolism related to dark secrets, the protagonists occasionally go out on the balcony to watch the eclipse of the moon.

It is hard to maintain a meaningful and interesting verbal exchange with so many participants in a conversation, and this film does a masterful job with the gradual escalation of uncertainty and apprehension. The credit goes to the imaginative screenplay, deft editing and convincing actors as much as to the skillful direction by Paolo Genovese. The main theme of relational intricacies is heightened by the ending that displays the parting of friends as if the game had not been played and nothing had been revealed. Is the preservation of secrecy more desirable? The answer depends on the nature and temperament of each individual, but the dramatic revelation of the deepest and most embarrassing secrets certainly goes well with the stereotype of Italians as passionate and sensual. The films has its flaws, but it certainly forces the viewer to ponder upon the contrast between the public and private image, and all the consequences of the failure to mitigate this inner polarity.

Svetozar Postic

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