Don’t Tell (La Bestia nel Cuore) (2005): Italy’s Foreign Language Oscar Nominee

Dont Tell, Italy’s 2005 Foreign-Language Oscar nominee, is compulsively watchable provided we are willing to make a leap of faith. Taking such potentially subversive subjects as incest and lesbianism and filtering out all traces of reality, the movie is sort of a Lifetime Original.

Dont Tell centers around Sabina, a voiceover actress who travels to the U.S. to visit her brother for the first time in years. The purpose of the trip is to come to terms with her painful childhood, which director Cristina Comencini reveals through flashbacks that resemble those eerie re-enactments on Unsolved mysteries. Dont Tell adds an interesting twist, though: whenever any character relives a traumatic memory, she looks straight ahead before Comencini cuts away to the flashback so that it appears as if the character is actually watching the flashback on a screen. The character has a horrified look on her face, which creates false suspense, because we quickly realize that its just another flashback.

The film’s other characters are Emilia, a blind woman who is in love with Sabina, and Maria, a bitter wife who is spying on her husband and his teenage lover outside of the department store where he meets her every day. Sabina brings the two women together, and despite their lack of chemistry, it is obvious that they will end up together because Maria now hates men and Sabina only loves Emilia like a sister.

The plot unfolds as a collection of interlocking stories that sidestep all those boring narrative devices, such as buildup and character development, leaping directly from one exciting revelation to the next. Comencini ushers in dramatic situations like extras in a movie, marching them on set and then sending them away the moment they cease to be relevant. For instance, the film uses Sabinas nightmares of incest so prominently at the beginning that we believe they will become a major theme, yet Sabina stops having these nightmares within the first half-hour (although incest is clearly still on her mind) and doesnt have them again until close to the end.

Dont Tell uses possible themes as red herrings, hinting at what the story might be about and, only to completely change course again and again. The movie opens with a scene of a woman being attacked, then pulls back to reveal actors in a sound booth who are dubbing the voices of the woman and her attacker. Could this be a commentary on the artificial nature of film Or does the scene foreshadow a later one, where Sabina, who is reading the lines, gets attacked while jogging in a park The possibilities are endless but never fully explored. Indeed, this scene becomes so irrelevant to the rest of the film that we wonder if it ended up in the final cut by mistake.

The only thing the filmmakers do consistently is to mislead us as to what the movie is really about. In the next scene, Franco, whom we soon learn is Sabinas boyfriend, debates whether or not to take a role on a TV show. An accomplished stage actor, Franco finds the idea of acting in a mediocre hospital soap degrading, but the director convinces him that he needs the money. An actor only exists if he has an audience, and since people dont go to the theater anymore its as if you dont exist, the director tells him.

Dont Tell does offer some nice comic moments. Its disappointing, however, when a situation with the potential of sending the movie in a Robert Altmanesque direction instead only exists so that Franco has an opportunity to cheat on his girlfriend with a kooky red-headed actress.

While it can be refreshing when a movie defies easy categorization, so that we cannot pigeonhole it into a theme, this only works when the parts that make up the movie are so satisfying on their own that it doesnt matter what they add up to. Unfortunately, the parts that compose Dont Tell are hackneyed and colorless; a patchwork of Hollywood clichs.

The fact that Dont Tell is an Italian film might account for its baffling Oscar nomination. If Dont Tell were made in Hollywood, it would be derided by critics for its lack of originality and focus. This movie is yet another example where the label Foreign Film misleads viewers to assume that it is unique or innovative when in fact it is only a Hollywood flick in disguise, one with staged emotional moments and talk-show sensibility. Comencini’s strategy is to introduce ludicrous situations that force us time and again to suspend disbelief to no real effect.

Written by Kate Findley