The 32-year-old D’Innocenzo brothers, Damiano and Fabio, are not newcomers; they shot a feature called Boys Cry in 2018 and made script contributions to many others, including Matteo Garrone’s Dogman. But this is their breakthrough as writer-directors: Favolacce, translated as Bad Tales, which won the Silver Bear award for screenplay at the Berlin film festival last year.
It is a superbly shot, viscerally acted ensemble drama of group dysfunction among blue-collar families in the Rome suburbs at the tail end of a sweltering summer. The children prepare to go back to school where a sinister science teacher is to have a catastrophic influence. The ingenious premise is that the narrator has discovered a child’s diary with blank pages and continues the journal in fictional form. This film is the result.
The formidable Italian actor Elio Germano plays Bruno, married to Dalila (Barbara Chichiarelli): he is an angry, repressed, gloomy man given to brutish rages and crying jags, who is unsettled by the emotional closeness of his smart kids, Dennis (Tommaso Di Cola) and Alessia (Giulietta Rebeggiani) and by his neighbours. Bruno’s relative financial comfort brings him no happiness but secretly infuriates his friend and neighbour Pietro (Max Malatesta), married to Susanna (Cristina Pellegrino), who is enraged when he has to get his daughter Viola (Giulia Melillo) out of Bruno’s garden pool because she has head lice.
When another boy, Geremia (Justin Korovkin), gets measles, his devoted dad Amelio (Gabriel Montesi) eagerly agrees to Susanna’s suggestion that his son should get together with Viola so that she can get her measles out of the way – and Amelio thinks it might be a great way to get Geremia laid. Dennis meanwhile is preoccupied with a pregnant woman called Vilma (Ileana D’Ambra) who may or may not be the means of his sentimental education.
These scenes of provincial life are not fairytales exactly; they are more a kind of urban pastoral, with something feral in the behaviour of the men, which mysteriously culminates in tragedy. It’s interesting to put this movie alongside Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Sacro GRA, an essay-meditation about the people who live on the margins of Rome by the GRA ring road (that is: the Grande Raccordo Anulare). Bad Tales’s dark and painful aspects, and its overwhelming heat, also had me thinking of Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days, about strange people sunbathing their way through the summer’s hot dullness.
• Released on 18 February on Mubi.
•This article was amended on 16 February to remove an inaccurate translation of the title.