One problem with love movies is that not everyone loves the same thing. A cleverly directed film can inspire audiences to share the characters' affection for each other, but just as often, romances fetishize obnoxious, childish, or selfish behavior, and watching two people mysteriously bond over actions that should drive them apart is generally more baffling than affirming.
There's nothing cute, cloying, or playful about the lovers in Sergio Castellitto's opaque romantic drama Don't Move, but in their way, they're as incomprehensible as the stars of any gimmicky comic love film. In an almost unfathomably grim adult take on the "they hate each other, then they love each other" romantic-movie cliché, they meet in violence and degradation, then somehow salvage a relationship that Don't Move seems at a loss to explain or even illuminate.
Directing from a screenplay he and his wife Margaret Mazzantini adapted from her novel, Castellitto also stars as an aging Italian surgeon whose world is shaken when his 15-year-old daughter (Claudia Gerini) is badly injured in a motorcycle accident. While awaiting word outside the operating theater, Castellitto reels through a series of flashbacks to a time before Gerini's birth. Stranded in a small village with a broken-down car, the younger Castellitto has a few drinks, then rapes an impoverished local woman (Penélope Cruz, in a pointedly unglamorous role) who offered him her phone. Returning later to apologize, he ends upafter a too-convenient edit that elides their relationship-defining confrontationsodomizing Cruz while standing up by her fireplace. Struggling to understand his need to return to her, Castellitto starts leaving her money after their brutal sessions, and he asks another surgeon for insight into whoring, but Cruz passively accepts his presence, and even begins cooking and caring for him. Soon, he's professing love and contemplating abandoning his beautiful, self-possessed wife, but the situation becomes complex when both women become pregnant.
Don't Move wouldn't necessarily need to explain itself. Castellitto builds a powerful and initially effective film simply by observing his character's conflicting drives toward violence and tenderness. But he makes the mistake of structuring his story like a puzzle, bouncing through time to reveal events that only open up more questions. As a child, Castellitto's character witnessed his father abandoning his mother: Is that the too-simple key to his behavior? Does a past confrontation over Gerini's lack of skill at judo reveal something important? Is Gerini's accident really significant to the story, or is it just an excuse for more pathos? By partially dissecting his character, Castellitto only reveals how little he knows about him. And his blank, unrevealing portrayal not only makes him stand out among the more expressive and uniformly excellent cast members, it highlights Don't Move's empty core. Blaise Pascal famously (and reasonably) observed that the heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing. But things that cannot be comprehended or communicated don't always make the best stories.