The Girl by the Lake

I didn't know this movie was based on a series of Norwegian detective novels starring Inspector Sanzio, but it certainly felt like he was a character worth exploring in greater depth. Like an extended episode of many American crime procedurals today, this Italian film is a pretty straightforward journey through a murder mystery. Sanzio is an outsider in a small, close-knit community, trying to weave through the secrets and lies that sustain such a place to get to the truth of a young woman's murder. The Girl by the Lake is independent in every sense of the word, and I suspect people who aren't used to this sort of thing will have a hard time with it. First-time director Andrea Molaioli spends as much time showing us the beauty of her Italian hamlet as she does taking us through the narrative. I've never read the books of author Karin Fossum, but I can definitely see them being very popular amongst crime-fiction aficionados in the States. I spent the film trying to read between the lines and discern the truth about what had happened.

It's the little details that ultimately matter, like how the body is displayed, as well as the reactions of everyone Sanzio talks to through the course of the film. Many people appear guilty as we meet the different people who interacted regularly with the girl. I appreciated the misdirection about one odd character right from the beginning, a catalyst that leads to Sanzio being brought to town.

Each character, though only briefly glimpsed, is rich with hidden details and emotional baggage, which is a credit to the writing and the directing. They don't seem as if they're just there to service the story, but rather as if they're real people who have been brought into this situation. Everyone may know everyone else in a small town, but that doesn't mean everyone likes everyone else, and that much is evident. They don't much care for outsiders, either, which hampers Sanzio's investigations in subtle ways.

As an art-house film, it's easy to see why The Girl by the Lake was such a powerhouse in Italy, sweeping their equivalent of the Oscars with 10 wins, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Nothing is handed to you, and the performances are all beautifully undersold.

Toni Servillo is one of Italy's top actors, and it's easy to see why as he brings Inspector Sanzio to life. Seeing his relationships with his daughter and wife is enough to add weight to the way he goes about this murder investigation. Even when he's making mistakes or completely losing his cool, we can extrapolate where this passion is coming from through the filter of the struggles he has in his personal life. It's a well-appreciated, and again subtle, way to add depth to what could have easily been a two-dimensional, cardboard police investigator.

The best compliment I can give the film is that, while it may not be the most innovative mystery I've ever seen, it is a journey I not only enjoyed, but one I find myself thinking about afterward. More importantly, not only would I be interested in spending more time with Inspector Sanzio as he takes on more challenging cases, I'd love to explore this quiet little mountain town and its fascinatingly complex denizens some more. That's a testament to the strength of the writing, acting, directing, and all those things that won so many awards in Italy. First of all, if I'm going to have to read every bit of dialogue -- as the film is in Italian and there is no dubbed version available on the DVD -- would it be possible to upgrade from the Commodore 64 that must have been used to write the text? I swear it's the exact same font and presentation I used to see on dubbed films back in the '80s. I know IFC doesn't have a lot of money, but a softer font that's easier on the eyes would have been appreciated.

As for extras...trailers. A trailer (in English) for this film, as well as a few other IFC films. They were effective in making me interested in the other films. As far as enhancing my appreciation for this particular film, the disc was a colossal disappointment.