Editor’s note: Our review of Hungry Hearts originally ran during last year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release this week.
Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts starts out sweetly enough, with a bathroom-set meet-cute that’s perhaps better classified as a meet-gross, as angel-faced Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) becomes trapped in a tiny restaurant bathroom with Jude (Adam Driver), who is apparently suffering from gastrointestinal distress. The pair is able to laugh heartily at their situation, and once a bewildered waiter forces the door open, it’s no surprise that the next scene sees Jude and Mina in bed together. Costanzo fast-forwards their relationship, and before audiences have a chance to settle into their apparently now-serious pairing, Mina is pregnant and they’ve gone and gotten married. It’s after this happy event – the kind of ending we’d find in a traditional romantic comedy that would perhaps play around with its own meet-gross – that things go spectacularly insane.
Mina, always a bit unusual, takes her pregnancy very seriously, though not in a way that makes Jude (or anyone else for that matter) feel comfortable. A hardcore vegan, Mina refuses to eat, and the pair’s baby (who is never named) faces a rocky gestation and an undesirable birth. Consumed by motherhood, Mina shuts out almost everything and everyone around – even Jude – while adhering to a strict parenting plan that leaves their child underfed, underweight and on the edge of something very dark indeed. Jude, desperate to save his imbalanced wife and malnourished child, begins to wage a steady war against – well, what exactly? Mina? Mina’s insanity? something far more nefarious? – and the tension of the feature ratchets up exponentially.
Fair-minded audience members will find arguments for both Mina’s point of view and Jude’s fear of it, though Costanzo stacks the deck against Mina in order to make Jude the more sympathetic character early on. It’s Jude who goes looking for outside help – doctors, his family, the state – while Mina languishes in her own ideals. The causes of Mina’s (maybe) insanity are never fully explored, though Costanzo drops hints in the early part of the film that imply that something is already amiss – from Mina’s apparent interest in getting pregnant at an inopportune time to her belief that the baby is a blessed “indigo child” to her lack of a relationship with her own family – but that’s not what’s compelling about her breakdown. The breakdown itself, slow and steady and brutally unkind, is the focal point of the feature, and Rohrwacher’s commitment to the work and Costanzo’s steady direction keeps it chugging along to a heartstopper of an ending.
Costanzo and cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti stay claustrophobically close to their subjects, and even when things are happy and good between the pair, Hungry Hearts purposely repulses. By the film’s halfway point, Costanzo has shifted into full genre garb, with a screeching score more appropriate for a standard screamer and a series of unrelenting and off-kilter angles that cast both Jude and Mina in increasingly terrifying lights. The film’s lighting and overall color turns murky and sickly yellow, and the pressure and tension of the feature presses on both its audience and stars. By the time Hungry Hearts starts moving into its wild-to-the-point-of-wackiness final conclusion, patient watchers will be rewarded with some major twists and a banger of a final sequence.
The Upside: Committed performances, an enthralling story, visually inventive, terrifically unsettling and weird.
The Downside: The tonal change is initially jarring, Jude and Mina’s relationship is barely developed, shifting perspectives never quite gel.
On the Side: The film is based on Marco Franzoso’s recent novel “Il Bambino Indaco” (which literally translates to “the indigo child”). Unlike Costanzo’s film, Franzoso’s novel starts at the end and works it way backwards to tell its tale, a decision is weirdly reminiscent of a similar one made by Melanie Laurent for her TIFF film, Breathe, and both choices prove to be wise picks for their cinematic versions.