L’Attesa — also known as The Wait — is atmospheric and moody, serious and full of portent, and if it weren’t so good, it would probably be unbearable.
In his feature debut, director Piero Messina understands that he is dealing with grand issues, with time and life and death, and he has the artistic confidence to present them without irony and without short cuts.
He watches. He moves in close. He waits as much as his characters wait, and he finds some great moments.
If you want to see great acting — or more to the point, if you want to see an illustration of the human soul’s complexity — watch Juliette Binoche in this film.
Through her, we see the possibility of feeling and thinking multiple thoughts and emotions at once, as well as one actress’ ability to convey that complexity almost entirely through her eyes. What was acting before movies were invented? Such moments would be lost from a stage; they couldn’t exist.
And yet such acting is as exalted as anything in art.
Based on a story by Pirandello, the movie is set in Sicily, and so it’s no surprise that it begins with a funeral. Binoche as Anna — a French woman who moved to Sicily when she got married — is burying her son in the days before Easter.
Later that day or the next, when the mourners are still gathered at the house, a young woman shows up at her door. She’s Jeanne (Lou de Laage), the fiancee of the dead son, there to spend the holiday.
She has no idea that her fiance is dead. She expects that he has already arrived; and, weirdly and spontaneously, Anna doesn’t tell her the truth. She says that the son will be arriving the next day.
The rest of the film is all about waiting. Jeanne waits for a man who will never show up, and we wait for Anna to break the bad news. As for Anna, the film’s enigma, what is she waiting for? The right moment? Or for her own pain to begin to lessen?
Or does she just want to extend Jeanne’s visit, so as not to be alone in a cavernous villa? Old buildings are romantic when contemplated from America, where everything is new. Here we see old from the Italian point of view, that old can be suffocating, that ancient stone can dwarf the spirit.
Though Binoche goes through L’Attesa looking like an Italian matriarch, grave and dressed in black, she speaks French through most of the film. Jeanne is also French, and it’s clear, not only in the script but in the way Binoche looks at her, that Anna completely understands this young woman, that 25 or 30 years ago, Anna was Jeanne.
It’s such a help to the film — actually, it’s essential — that Messina was able to find an actress of quality to play the younger woman. Lou de Laage has the poise, intelligence and precision to match Binoche.
L’Attesa takes place between Good Friday and Easter and tells the story of a mother and son, and so it can be understood through the prism of Christian symbolism. Certainly, that element is present, and intentional, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with symbols.
The point is not that one thing is really something else. The point is rather something stronger and more simple — that when a mother loses her grown son, it’s the death of Christ. That is, it’s a disaster on that scale.
In French and Italian with English subtitles
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The Wait (L’Atessa)
Director: Piero Messina
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Lou de Laage
Running time: 100 minutes