I was fortunate enough such that the stars aligned and I was able to attend a New York Film Festival screening of Asia Argento’s latest feature-length directorial effort: Misunderstood (the original Italian title being Incompresa). Asia as a director came to my attention with the release of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, a film that was among my favorites of 2006 and of the past decade. It’s hard to remember which came first but there was a rather fortuitous symbiosis of my discovering both her work on/off the screen and that of her father internationally renowned Italian horror and giallo director Dario Argento.
In certain ways there are parallels between her latest effort and The Heart is Deceitful… in terms of visual motifs and story tropes. However, the main difference is one of intended tonality. With the prior film it’s a much starker, more harrowing journey for a mother, but mainly her child. Whereas here while there are some serious, heavy growing-pains dealt with there is also a lot of humor, warmth, sensitivity and joie de vivre. The reason for this is that there is each of these past two films and honest understanding of intention of how emotion and mood could be evoked. Whereas before Argento’s eye was the lens through which she refracted J.T. Leroy’s then-purported-to-be-true memoir, here she turns her sensibilities towards a story of her own making.
There has and can be much discussion of how much of this film is autobiographical with protagonist, Aria (Asia’s birth name), being the daughter of a famous father and other things. However, regardless of that she is the auteur of this oeuvre directing and co-writing the script and the music. It’s her vision and the truth she finds in this story is a universal one. For nine-year old Aria (Giulia Salerno) there are many rites of passage, both large and small, that occur in this film. As idiosyncratic as her family is, as caricatured as her parents are, there is still a kernel of truth at the core of the film that allows it to speak to you whether you’re Italian, American or Chinese; man or woman; straight, gay or otherwise; fairly young or old.
The characters’ foibles is also where her directorial sleight of hand comes into play. The film is told from Aria’s perspective and when it does slip into flights of fancy it doesn’t blare it from the mountaintops but allows it to wash over you fluidly and then for you to realize what had occurred. The key to this film keeping its feet on the ground while reaching up is that at her core Aria doesn’t seek changes or make ultimatums she merely wants to be loved and essentially accepts everyone as they are warts and all.
Due to the fact that this was a festival screening we were treated to a Q & A after the fact and one of the many insightful answers Miss Argento gave were about the young star of the film, Giulia Salerno. Asia having been a young actor herself, having children, and also teaching acting to children has a keen eye not only for talent but for kids who she says “are pushed into and kids who want it [acting].” Salerno is type who wants to act and it shows in her performance as she effortlessly communicates emotion, is engaging and charismatic.
A testament to the way this film moves and structures itself in small, somewhat isolated sequences that form a coherent whole allow characters whom are typically over-the-top-types; Mom, a party girl who refuses to settle down in an adult relationship (Very convincingly portrayed in a bilingual performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Dad, a short-tempered, superstitious, vain actor (Engagingly brought to life by Gabriel Garko), to have moments and to let down their façade and be more human. Argento also did well in crafting the script and picking actors who could emote beyond merely the text and convey their characters through action.
The thread that really holds this film together is the music, which seamlessly blends obscure source music from the period (1984), scoring and new songs fashioned to emulate the mid-‘80s sound. It gives the proper emotional tenor as well as transitioning the story between scenes and sequences. It’s one of the rare cases of the music being used in all possible ways to enhance the whole of the film.
Misunderstood is refreshing inasmuch as its a coming-of-age tale that does not focus solely on one rite. It’s a slice of life for Aria’s character with many of the usual concerns: schools, friends, first crushes and the like, as well as some other concerns conveyed in somewhat more unorthodox circumstances such as her relationship with her siblings with the spiritual world and more. It’s a film that wants you to laugh along with it as it’s trying to strike that universal chord that rings true to all regardless of circumstances. Misunderstood is aptly named very ably portraying not only its protagonist’s being misunderstood but also understanding her at a deep, fundamental level and conveying her story clearly.