Involving Mystery

Italy boosts film noir with the compelling, if not wholly satisfying, "The Double Hour"

It doesn't take much for a movie to be considered film noir anymore. Obviously, black-and-white films don't come around every day, and although that's not technically necessary for the definition, films we consider noir are commonly drenched in shadows, the kind that are most effective in the contrast of black-and-white—in movies like Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, The Maltese Falcon. But Chinatown is film noir. So is Blade Runner. And Memento.

The term "noir" is really more about the cynicism and fatalism of the story, peopled with morally ambiguous characters. These were the kind of stories that just happened to start popping up a lot in the 1940s, when black-and-whites were still the way to go, and hardboiled detective movies were cheap and easy to make. Thus, a genre was born.

It's not hard to find cynicism and fatalism in today's world, so film noir can exist almost anywhere. Italy, for example.

That's the setting for The Double Hour, a mystery that almost reveals too little along the way, but nevertheless builds toward a complex conclusion that is at once unavoidable and slightly unsatisfying. It's not uncommon to hear that movies are really about where the characters take the story instead of the other way around, and in The Double Hour, Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport) and Guido (Filippo Timi) could just as easily drive off into the sunset a happy couple. She's a hotel chambermaid, and he's a retired cop who now spins his wheels as a security guard at a massive villa loaded with priceless works of art. They meet at a speed-dating event and have sex almost immediately. They're Europeans; it's allowed.

Both of them seem fractured, and as they begin to trust one another, they let in a little sunlight on their secrets. On a weekend road trip, Guido decides to show Sonia where he works. Unfortunately for Guido, a small gang of thieves is also interested in where he works, cleaning out the cherished works of art while he and Sonia are tied up on the floor.

Then it gets ugly.

Director Giuseppe Capotondi has directed several music videos and commercials over the years, but this is his first film. It speaks volumes that he has chosen not a visual showcase—a movie that will bear his fingerprints in every scene—but rather a complete and compelling story. For a man used to working in 30-second or maybe four-minute increments, Capotondi displays none of the quick-trigger editing of ads and videos, and he requires our attention throughout.

The Double Hour is, in that respect, a rather refreshing feature debut. Much like the movements of the characters dictate the action of the film, Capotondi lets the action of the film dictate his direction. His measured approach fits its surroundings beautifully, allowing the little secrets to leak out instead of hitting all at once.

Timi brings a burdened, you-don't-want-to-know-everything-I've-seen dispassion to Guido that used to be Robert Mitchum's domain. He never looks comfortable and always has an eye out for the other shoe to drop. Guido is the sort of character whose true feelings are revealed not in what he says, but rather in the exhaled cigarette smoke that punctuates the pause before he says it.

No matter how the genre has changed over the years, any film noir worth its salt has a femme fatale to match. Is Sonia really bad, or like Jessica Rabbit, is she just drawn that way? Usually, the ladies of film noir are a little more transparent than Sonia, and Rappoport doesn't risk divulging too much too soon. She'd make a hell of a poker player.

Like the recent French export Tell No One, The Double Hour invigorates a genre too many people ignore. It may walk a little too far out on the plank to keep us guessing, but at least it keeps us involved.

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