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Miele is directed by Valeria Golino, best known to English-speaking audiences as Topper Harley’s sexy, exotic girlfriend in the popular Hot Shots duology. That description, however, might be a reductive summation of her talents, because two decades later, she demonstrates what must be a higher calling as a director of challenging, thought-provoking drama in a film that should surely have landed In Competition — instead appearing in the still-esteemed Un Certain Regard cachet — and is presently the film to beat of not just the festival but the entire year.

Going by the pseudonym Miele, Irene (Jasmine Trinca) is an angel of death, helping to give the terminally ill a peaceful means to leave this world, usually with the assistance of a loved one. To perform these euthanisations, she typically travels from Italy to Mexico to procure a barbiturate used to put dogs down and then implores said patient to drink it with vodka. However, one patient, who wishes to die but is not terminally ill, tests the mettle of Irene’s resolve, causing her to confront the very nature of her work.

Miele is a rare film that avoids all the typical hallmarks of an untrained, first-time feature director. Not only is the picture water-tight from a thematic perspective, but it also boasts a sharp melding of visuals and sound. The inarguable master-stroke, however, is in casting Trinca as the lead. She is undeniably beautiful while displaying a slightly weathered countenance that fits her character extremely well. When we observe Irene talking her patients through the fatal procedure in the most clinical details (in order to ensure that the decision to die is theirs alone), it soon enough becomes clear why that is.

It’s a wholly unnerving concept, one executed with respectful grace but visceral honesty also, no better than when Irene meets Carlo (Carlo Cecchi), the old man who is not terminally ill but in fact chronically depressed. While Irene is then forced to confront her personal code of ethics — and the sloppiness that caused her to not even ask about his terminal illness in the first place — their chemistry invites a strong bent of dark humor that compliments the piece perfectly, preventing it from descending into mere misery porn.

It is along this tangent that the film discovers its most probing thematic engagement, holding a mirror up to society’s relationship with terminal illness against an invisible, mental one. Irene finds herself awe-struck by this conundrum, and it’s fascinating to observe how strictly both her and we as audience members might draw the line. Euthanasia is by 2013 no longer the strong taboo it once was, whereas the more speculative nature of mental illness will keep it a phantom for the foreseeable future.

Although most attention will be focused on Trinca and her character’s increasing involvement with Carlo, this is a film in which every performance stuns, from the most minor parts to those starring front and center. The various terminally ill individuals and their distraught family members contribute hugely to the overall emotional heft of the piece, and our engagement with the eventual toll this takes on the protagonist (though she naturally tries to sublimate it at first).

Trinca, a relatively fresh face to most audiences, delivers a smouldering performance in the titular role. Oozing sex appeal yet also appearing emotionally distant at first, Irene is a transfixing, hugely compelling character, and with any luck, the stellar actress’s robust work here will only see the job offers come whizzing in.

More so than any one performance, though, it is the central relationship between Irene and Carlo that best sells the film’s thorny themes. Watching Carlo run rings around Irene with his undeniably sound logic — despite his unfortunate mental state — is at once frightening, hilarious and wholly heartfelt. It is the aching humanism cutting through the piece that makes it such a joy to behold despite the grim subject matter, even as it arrives at the sad conclusion that, in the best possible world, indeed, nobody really wants to die.

Regardless of whether or not Carlo goes through with his act, Golino’s closing statement on mental illness, both its lack of recognition and its miasmic nature, is a much-needed cinematic wake-up call. Skirting around the histrionic cliches associated with this type of film, Miele is a virtuoso masterpiece from a director who has instantly made herself one to watch.

The Upside: From top to bottom, this is a finely tuned drama with exceptionally drawn characters, pulled taut across a cinematic landscape that is beautiful to behold both visually and sonically. Sure to be a highlight of the festival, and perhaps the year also.

The Downside: Subject matter is inescapably dark and will therefore be a discomforting sit for many viewers. The film’s unconventional push for catharsis may also strike less-world-cinema-savvy viewers off-guard.

On the Side: Jasmine Trinca made her film debut in Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

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