Miami Film Festival 2015: The Dinner Meanders and Fizzles

I nostri ragazzi isn't the first time that Dutch novelist Herman Koch's novel, The Dinner, has been adapted for film. Only a year or so after the Dutch adaptation of the book, we find ourselves with this Italian edition.

Showing at the Miami International Film Festival under the novel's title, Ivano De Matteo's film might just be one of the loosest adaptations of a novel in existence, and that's not a compliment. Titling it The Dinner seems completely worthless, as De Matteo delivers a painfully timid film in lieu of the carnage-like plot of the book. Koch's book tells the story of two couples meeting for dinner at an Amsterdam restaurant. As the novel unfolds, Koch reveals what the two couple have in common - namely, that their sons have both committed a terrible crime.

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The film provides a glimpse into the lives of two brothers -- Paolo the doctor (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Massimo the lawyer (Alessandro Gassman) -- whose children viciously beat a homeless woman to death, their crimes have been caught on camera. This event tears at the seams of already strained familial relationships and it's one that stretches further than a bitter dinner; the meal barely takes up five minutes of the film.

Instead of creating a boiler plate psychological drama, de Matteo indulges himself in creating a work of slow reveals, populating it with a lot of silent, long shots. He tracks through restaurants and entire apartments as though teasing the possibility of the titular dinner. It's the kind of thing some might call a slow-burning thriller if they were trying desperately hard to defend it, but with no thrills or character development in sight, it's a hard sell.

Mind you, taking these relationships and exploring them outside of a contained setting could have been an interested take on a much-adapted novel. The concept of building an entire narrative prefacing a climactic event (which is essentially what The Dinner is) could be great if done right. And I nostri ragazzi tries to do that; offering a glimpse of what these characters are like in their daily lives, outside of a tense situation. The problem is that none of the characters are actually interesting.

Koch's untrustworthy narrator is gone and everything is handed to the audience on a silver platter. That lack of ambiguity is what often leaves The Dinner floating dead in the water, even when the film tries to break its own silences. There's no genuine moral exploration, and the filmmaker tries desperately to make his four main characters likeable people (something the novel has absolutely no interest in doing). Were it not for solid performances, the film would be entirely unbearable.

Worse yet, I nostri ragazzi is afraid to actually get its hands dirty, to delve into the moral depths of criminality and strained family relationships. The film's opening scene features a car chase that ends with a police officer killing a man and paralyzing a child. It's smartly executed and shapes how the viewer approaches Paolo and Massimo. Yet the harrowing scene seems to have absolutely no impact on the rest of the film.

And that's the biggest problem that The Dinner has: nothing it shows on screen is ever of any true import to the narrative, to the characters, and, because of that, to the audience.

The Dinner will be playing at Coral Gables Art Cinema on Saturday, March 7, at 4 p.m. and at Regal South Beach Cinema on Tuesday, March 10, at 9:45 p.m. as part of the Miami International Film Festival. Tickets cost $13. Visit miamifilmfestival.com.

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