“THE DINNER— Family Tensions

the dinner

“The Dinner” (“I nostri ragazzi”)

Family Tensions

Amos Lassen

“The Dinner” is about two brothers and their wives, and the interactions between them and their two high school age children. When the kids get into serious trouble together, the parents are affected by what they did and questions arise. The film is based on a novel by Herman Koch. Director Ivano De Matteo’s version takes liberties with the novel that opens the action beyond a single dinner conversation, giving context to the hard choices at the heart of the drama.

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The film opens with two drivers exchanging heated words when one of them blows a red light because he is talking on his cell phone. As tempers flare, the offended driver stops his car, pulls out a baseball bat, and goes after the cell phone user. The driver’s side window shatters, but not from the bat—the driver is a police officer, and he fires a fatal shot into the man in self-defense. The bullet passes through the man and strikes his 10-year-old son Stefano (Lupo De Matteo), who is sitting in the passenger seat and was pleading with his father to stop arguing. This incident brings the two brothers at the heart of the story, Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio), together, the former a lawyer defending the shooter and the latter a physician treating the injured boy.

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 Paolo and his wife Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) are a middle class couple with one son, Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who hangs out with his older cousin Benedetta also known as Benny (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) watching embarrassing and violent videos on TV and YouTube. Benny’s father, Massimo, is a wealthy widower who is on his second marriage to Sofia (Barbora Bobulova) and they have a new daughter. Clara hates Sofia, and Paolo has some long-standing enmity toward his brother, but like clockwork, the two couples meet at Massimo’s favorite restaurant once a month.

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Michele has not been doing well in school, and Paolo wants to keep him from going with Benny to a party. At the party, Michele is hopelessly out of place among the college-age crowd and ends up getting very drunk. He decides to leave, and Benny goes after him. The teens are very quiet the next day, but when Clara watches an Italian version of “Crimestoppers,” she sees a video of two people beating and kicking a homeless woman and dragging her along the street. Clara views the video again on her son’s laptop the next day after he goes to school, and is shocked to confirm her fear the two who beat the man might be Benny and Michele. Later, Benny pumps her father for legal information about the crime, which she claims her friends committed; Massimo goes to an unsuspecting Paolo and says he suspects that their children were responsible. Angry at Clara for keeping him in the dark, Paolo forces the truth out of Michele. It is then up to the families to decide whether to cover for their children or turn them in.

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Here we come fact-to-face with the human struggle between emotion and reason. Clara and Paolo are horrified that Massimo can defend the policeman who left a family man dead and his son temporarily paralyzed, but Massimo believes that everyone deserves a defense. This is the kind of rational thinking one needs and expects from a lawyer. Paolo is overcome with shock and horror at what his son and niece have done and he yells at Massimo, Clara, and Sofia for talking about the best way to keep them from paying for their crime. Paolo’s conflict is enormous, flipping constantly between love for his son and his belief in justice and this is a challenge to his liberal philosophy. We see Clara’s hypocrisy as she watches r “Crimestoppers” show to see if justice will be served while at the same time choosing to believe the lies of her son until he is forced into confessing and then actively seeking to keep the truth from getting out. Sofia is a bit more dispassionate, as Benny is not her natural daughter, but she will do whatever Massimo believes is right.

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Director De Matteo puts the blame directly where it belongs—on human nature, on people driven to violence by thoughtlessness or the view that some people’s lives are worthless. Envy certainly plays a role in how Paolo and Clara regard Massimo and Sofia and their luxurious lifestyle. The way we feel as we watch is constantly shifting, and our beliefs about the characters reinforced and challenged again and again.

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The film is totally naturalistic film style and the performances are wonderful all around but especially Lo Cascio and Mezzogiorno who take this film and its somewhat familiar theme to new and interesting places. It is, however, a bit hard to really know the characters because we meet them at a particularly stressful time.

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