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definitely not for the prudish
on July 24, 2005
The Italian film "Open My Heart" is a provocative, dark and deeply disturbing domestic drama, fraught with bizarre interpersonal relationships and riddled with sexual tension. This is not an easy film for the sensitive or undiscriminating viewer to handle - what with its graphic sex scenes, depictions of lesbian incest and half a dozen or so harrowing murders as part of its overall package. But neither is it a film for the prurient or for those in search of tawdry titillation to get excited about - for "Open My Heart" is more concerned with subtleties of character and evocation of mood than it is with cheap thrills and fleshly exploitation.
The film, written and directed by Giada Colagrande (who also plays Caterina), focuses on two sisters living together after the death of their mother fifteen years earlier. The older of the two, Maria, has taken to prostitution as a means of supporting the both of them, bringing her customers home in the daytime to the same bed that she and her sister share at night. The younger sister, Caterina, is a shy 17-year old virgin who has been made a virtual prisoner in the apartment in which they live, being allowed to venture out only to take dancing lessons several times a week (even her schooling is done at home). Caterina accepts her fate good-naturedly and almost gratefully, even though she is forced to watch and listen - with an attitude of growing resentment and envy - as a steady stream of men flows in and out of the bedroom to make love to her sister.
Maria wields a tremendous amount of power in her relationship with Caterina, essentially isolating the youngster from any meaningful contact with the outside world. Is this done out of a perverted sense of love and duty, a desire to protect her sister from the problems of life on the outside? Or is it a product of her own innate need to subjugate and dominate a weaker individual who never complains about her treatment and who seemingly loves Maria unconditionally? Colagrande never spells out the answers for us explicitly, but we do see the way in which Maria manipulates Caterina to her own advantage, going so far as to make her her lover despite their being siblings. But even Maria can have only so much control over another person and, eventually, Caterina's growing desire for men begins to manifest itself. When Caterina becomes attracted to one of Maria's customers - a middle-aged custodian at the dance school Caterina attends - the man gets pulled into a bizarre sexual triangle that begins Maria's descent into premeditated violence and murder.
One of the gravest injustices one could perform against this film would be to relate too much of the plot beforehand, for much of the power of the film lies in seeing where the filmmakers will take us in terms of the storyline. The movie begins slowly with Colagrande intentionally leaving out vital pieces of information that she then reveals in her own due time. This intentional ambiguity serves to pull us deeper into the drama once the details begin to fall into place. What's amazing is that, even with all these sensational elements embedded in the plot, the film always remains low-keyed and detached in tone and mood. Much of the time is taken up with people sitting or standing around NOT saying much of anything to one another but conveying meaning through their gestures, their subtle actions and the silences that say more than their words ever could. Even the "violence" at the end is muted and understated to the point where it doesn't disturb the placid surface of these characters' lives.
Colagrande has created a world that is just bizarre and off-kilter enough to throw the viewer off balance and make us question what is right and what is wrong for the duration of the film. She shows how easily sex can be converted into a weapon in a power struggle between two individuals, especially when one of the parties is dominant by nature and the other submissive. She also exploits that age-old fetish that views death as the ultimate orgasm, as Maria and Caterina finally descend into a macabre game of perversion, trickery and murder that puts one in mind of the female praying mantis or black widow spider.
As the people caught in the bizarre love triangle, Colagrande, Natalie Cristiani and Claudio Botosso give restrained, effective performances. Colagrande chose to shoot the film with a digital camera, giving the picture the slightly seedy, pseudo-amateurish look that this highly personal, intensely intimate material calls for.
"Open My Heart" is not for those who are easily offended by explicit sex and suggestive violence, but those who appreciate movies that push the envelope and show us aspects of life we may not have seen before will find this a rewarding experience.