The Dinner (2014)

*. The Dinner is the second of three (so far) film versions of Herman Koch’s 2009 novel of the same name (in Dutch, Het diner). Each has had its own national flavour. There was a Dutch version in 2013, this Italian film, and an American production in 2017.
*. What sets this Dinner (I nostri ragazzi) apart is the greater liberties it takes with its source. The parents, for example, have different professions: a pediatric surgeon and a criminal defence lawyer instead of a teacher and a politician. Also, their kids are now a boy and a girl instead of two boys, which makes a difference. But perhaps most significant for the way the story plays out, there is no dinner. Or at least, we never see anyone eating dinner. The couples go to a restaurant twice but a main course never arrives.
*. I say this is significant because the conceit behind the book (and, mostly, the other film versions) is that the whole story takes place over a single dinner. It has the effect of compressing the drama into real time, and works well on the page. On screen? Well, while “stagey” I think such an approach gives the cast, the director, and the script a chance to shine. The other movies try to at least stick to the spirit of the book, but this Dinner opts to spread things out, to the point where the dinners become irrelevant. Nothing important happens at either, at least until the very end.

*. I began by not liking what was going on. The two brothers’ professional lives intersect with a killing in the opening scene that leaves the killer being defended by Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and one of his victims being treated by Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio). This seemed to me at first to be a distraction, but as things progressed I saw it as relating directly to the way each brother would respond to their own moral dilemma. Paolo will ultimately come down on the side of trying to save his son, while Massimo will want to see justice done.
*. One change I did not agree with was making one of the kids a girl. The relationship between Benedetta and Michele left me baffled. What was a hot chick like her doing hanging around with such a loser cousin anyway? There seemed to be something creepy being hinted at, but I just couldn’t figure it out.
*. I was impressed that they didn’t try to make Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) sympathetic at all. To the point of not even trying to cover up his acne scars. Let’s face it, this is a guy we don’t like at all. And one thing that does work with his pairing with his beautiful cousin is that it underlines how morally ugly they both are.
*. The adult leads all struck me as very good. A special nod goes out to Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who plays Clara, the mother of Michele. The way she falls in the kitchen was a fantastic touch. I don’t think she slips, I think she just can’t stand up after realizing what Michele has done.

*. I wonder if there can be any greater dramatic moment than when a parent realizes that their child is, in fact, a complete piece of shit. That’s something an actor can really sink their teeth into. And I like how we get to see Clara withdrawing from reality to her own bubble as things start to go downhill. This is the best part of the film and I wish there were more of it.
*. The ending is too abrupt, as the ending of the American version would be as well (in a different way). But then this is a difficult piece to end, as there’s no chance for any closure.
*. An alternative title in the U.S. was Our Boys. This brought to mind Bernard Lefkowitz’s Our Guys, the true story of how a town closed ranks around the jocks who raped a handicapped girl in a New Jersey town. So though it’s a Dutch novel I think the story resonates with an American audience. It made me wonder though how much of this version is inflected with an Italian sense of family. And the answer is, I don’t know.
*. As I say, I started off not liking The Dinner but it gradually won me over and by the end I was quite enjoying it. I didn’t like the way it winds up, but until that point there was a lot about it I thought very well done, especially in terms of the acting. And it’s certainly a much better film than the American version that would come out a couple of years later. It does, however, still leave me thinking that something is missing. There’s a reticence about it, a reluctance to put its finger on the scales of moral judgment. Understandable, but I kept looking for something a bit more pink and raw.

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