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BERLINALE 2019 Forum

Review: The Last to See Them


- BERLIN 2019: Italian director Sara Summa uses minimalistic means to forge a thriller focusing on the last day in the life of a family

Review: The Last to See Them
Barbara Verrastro, Donatella Viola, Canio Lancellotti and Pasquale Lioi in The Last to See Them

The Last to See Them [+see also:
film profile
 by Sara Summa premiered in the Forum section of the 69th Berlinale. Its title refers to the sentence often heard in relation to the death or disappearance of a person when a criminal investigation gets under way. The most important clues are first searched for in the victims’ immediate surroundings: “When did you last see him or her (alive)?” In this particular case, the audience ends up in the position of being the last people to catch a glimpse of them with blood still coursing through their veins.

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In an idyllic spot somewhere in the South Italian countryside lives a family of four in apparent harmony with nature and fully respectful of each other in their interactions. The preparations for the wedding of the elder daughter need to be finalised, and it's the younger daughter, Dora (Barbara Verrastro), who takes on most of the tasks. She sews the dresses for the bridesmaids, and does the shopping and the cooking. Her mother (Donatella Viola) wanders around the house like a ghost, complaining of a headache, her father (Canio Lancellotti) is busy dealing with an insurance agent with whom he took out life insurance, and her brother (Pasquale Lioi) is making a wooden shrine intended as a wedding present. All seems unspectacular – there is even time to pet the cat and tinker with an old car.

Through the eyes of each of the characters, the events are repeated from different perspectives, and at certain moments, a few new details emerge as the story progresses. This particular form is interesting and is the main strength of the film, which is otherwise not particularly striking overall. With minimalistic means, the director sets up an aesthetic reminiscent of the theatre. As in a stage play, the actors recite their lines, somehow making their performances seem very unnatural. This is reinforced by the decision not to let them speak in the South Italian dialect they would have used in real life, and which is commonplace in the location chosen for the story. The actors are obviously not at ease with this, and it elicits a sense of alienation and establishes a distance between the audience and the protagonists. It's possible that this was the director's intention all along, but if so, the reason is not revealed. 

The fate of the family is based on a true story from 2012. On the eve of the wedding, the Durati family was found assassinated for unknown motives, but a connection with the mafia was assumed. The Last to See Them thus offers a different kind of mafia film – one that steers clear of violent action scenes, weapons and bloodbaths. Instead, Summa opts for a static camera and a clear image composition, and interweaves the scenes featuring the actors with wide, austere but impressive landscape shots. The bright light that primarily dominates the images is in stark contrast with the dark fate of the protagonists. 

The Last to See Them is a German production by the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb), which is also distributing the film internationally.

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