Along with Paolo Sorrentino and Matteo Garrone, Ferzan Ozpetek is thought of as one of the great prospects of Italian cinema. Ozpatek is actually a slightly different kind of filmmaker: of Turkish extraction, his stories are less dramatic, more intimate and generally optimistic in nature. But, as with both Sorrentino and Garrone, he’s also a great stylist, and his films look absolutely fantastic. Although the plot of Sacred Heart may not sound particularly promising, the film itself is rather involving, and the two hours running time, although overlong, passes pleasingly enough.
Irene (Barbora Bobulova) is a high flying young Italian woman: she has a well-paid job at her Aunt Elaeanora’s property development firm – and she’s damn good at it – a cool house and a handful of friends. Everything, in other words, seems to be going very nicely for her. Until, that is, a couple of her work colleagues decide to kill themselves. It turns out that they’d committed suicide in order to avoid the shame of their fraudulent behavior being found out, but their act is the first in a series of occurrences that cause Irene’s carefully constructed life to begin unraveling.
Firstly, she begins renovating her huge family home, despite the reluctance of another Aunt (Erika Blanc), and the whole project begins to bring back long buried memories of her childhood. In particularly, her mother, who went mad after childbirth and ended her life locked in a room in the villa for her own protection. Then she meets a streetwise young pickpocket, Benny (Camille Dugay Comencini), and the two of them become increasingly close. Her mental state, however, begins to decline rapidly when Benny is knocked down and killed by a reckless driver. After having a minor breakdown during a corporate presentation, Irene begins perceiving the presence of all her dead friends around her, finding solace only from increasingly desperate acts of altruism.
The plot of Sacred Heart is fairly familiar: the story of an arch capitalist who has a kind of ethical awakening and learns to put the needs of other above the needs of the company she works for. It’s been done several times before, and is always used as a way of critiquing the rampant consumerism of modern society. That’s certainly the case here, although it is given a certain spin by the fact that Irene’s philanthropic development is perilously close to madness. Unfortunately, Irene also becomes more self-righteous as time goes on, not to mention more stupid (flirting with a possible murderer who insists on calling her by his dead fiancée’s name is not particularly intelligent behavior), all of which actually ends up making you feel more sympathetic towards the capitalist pigs (as represented by Eleanora). Some of this, surely, is intentional; there seem to be shades of grey in the moralistic breakdown, which is at least more interesting than usual.
But the melodramatic material is presented with a good deal of style – Ozpetek is unquestionably a talented director – and convincingly acted, especially by the excellent Barbora Bobulova. It’s a surprisingly calm film, with stately direction, a deliberate pace and romantic music, although you get the slight indication that Ozpetek may have a thing for horror films: there’s a creepy scene where Irene looks around the basement of the villa which could have come direct from Mario Bava, and a giallo style sequence in which she may be being stalked while in her swimming pool.
Additionally, there are interesting roles for a trio of Italian B-Movie icons: Lisa Gastoni is a hugely respected actress, but she made her name in B-Movies in the early sixties, Erika Blanc was a familiar giallo performer and Mariangela Giordano suffered a series of unpleasant demises in late 70s splatter films like Patrick Lives Again. It’s certainly great to see them all on screen again.
Sacred Heart is available on UK DVD. The print looks fantastic and it has English subs, although there are no extras whatsoever. Worth a look for anyone interested in contemporary Italian cinema, but don’t approach it expecting a beer and popcorn movie.