You gotta see Hungry Hearts to believe it. I don’t even know how to start describing the style of this movie… imagine that Blue is the Warmest Colour and The King’s Speech had a baby, and fed it a diet of Repulsion and A Clockwork Orange. And that serves as quite a counterpoint to the actual story, which is the stuff of soapy, made-for-TV Lifetime movies starring Sharon Lawrence. The film left me speechless at the end, because even though I was heavily emotionally invested, I couldn’t quite believe what I had just seen.
We begin with one of those Meet Cutes common to Hollywood romances. In a Chinese Restaurant, Mina enters the restroom, not realising it is already occupied by Jude, who is having some sort of horrifically smelly diarrhoeic episode. But oops!, the door gets stuck, giving the pair some time to apologise profusely to each other, talk for a bit, develop an attraction, fall in love, and get married.
Okay, that doesn’t all happen in the restroom, but it does happen at a nice, brisk pace. You quickly surmise this is not a Hollywood romance. Director Saverio Costanzo provides brief snippets of scenes—Mina and Jude’s wedding reception, the two of them making love, Mina sitting on the toilet peeing on a white stick—separated by gentle fades to black. It’s understated, impressionistic. His wide-angle lenses slowly get wider.
The pace slows a bit once Mina gets pregnant. She wants a natural birth at home, but her vegan diet has caused her to be dangerously underweight—a c-section is in order. Once her son is born, her obsession with ‘naturalness’ and ‘purity’ rises. She won’t feed her son baby food or formula, preferring homemade food from her rooftop garden. When Jude notices that his son has had a fever for over a week, she replies, ‘His body must learn to defend itself on its own!’ A strange thing to say for a woman who never lets her baby outdoors, and makes everyone remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering the apartment.
This is too much for Jude. He sneaks his son away to a doctor, who tells him the baby is grossly malnourished, and therefore not growing. So Jude has to do more sneaking: coming home from work in the middle of the day, he whisks his son off to a church just to give him some Gerber. Mina is none too pleased to discover this, and starts spooning the baby a laxative to cleanse him of Jude’s ‘poison.’ Jude gets more desperate, which makes Mina more desperate… There is weeping, and gnashing of teeth.
I’m not being coy by using terms like ‘the baby,’ ‘their son,’ etc. The child is not named throughout the entire film. From the very first scene in the bathroom, Costanzo strips away anything not directly related to this couple and their power struggle. It makes Hungry Hearts seem distant, lonely—like it’s happening in the deep vacuum of space. This intensity ceases only at the film’s explosive ending, which, to make a significant understatement, is a doozy. It quite figuratively blows up in your face, leaving you holding the scraps and embers of the film you just watched.
Both Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher won a Volpi Cup (the best acting award presented by the Venice Film Festival—prestigious) for their roles as Jude and Mina, respectively. As written, Mina could have been an intolerable shrew, but Rohrwacher’s performance is internal. She plays her as a woman sinking ever deeper into insanity, using her face and body to turn Mina into a kind of suffering sin eater. Adam Driver, so great in recent films like Paterson, is here sensitive but stern, emotional but forceful. He never gives into the temptation to overplay Jude; he remains subtle and heartbreaking throughout. It is his performance alone keeping Hungry Hearts firmly rooted in the real world.
The story is pretty sensationalistic, and I’ve already mentioned how soap-opera-like it gets. But soap operas remain popular because they suck you in, by god. Hungry Hearts made me audibly gasp, and at several points shout some much needed advice to the characters on the screen, who ignorantly and rudely proceeded to ignore me. (I then had to apologise to my dog for making such a ruckus.) The film doesn’t have anything resembling a point. It’s faintly ludicrous, and Costanzo’s filmmaking techniques reach the top of ‘over-the-top.’ I can’t go so far as to say that I liked it. But damn was it entertaining.