In Happy Times Will Come Soon, Alessandro Comodin tries to work out a new filmic vocabulary that merges realistic fiction with fable—fracturing time, tracing out just the barest outline of each character and situation, sometimes mixing realism with surrealism, and lingering so long on shots in which the action barely changes that he all but forces us to be in the moment with him. But while the director creates many individual moments of beauty, his film is a mélange of gorgeous tiles that never quite comes together as a mosaic.
The first part follows two beautiful young Italian men, Tommaso (Erikas Sizonovas) and Arturo (Luca Bernardi), as they escape from something unseen and run up a gorgeous wooded mountain, in one of many hyperextended takes. We never learn what they’re running from, where they’re planning to go, or what their relationship is to one another. At first, especially when they stop to wrestle, it seems that they might be lovers, but as time goes on, and the competent and confident Arturo continues to take the lead as Tomasso follows, they appear to be something closer to friends, or perhaps brothers.
With nothing manmade in sight but their clothes and the ragged lid of a can that they use as a knife, even the time period here feels indefinite. Nearly everything these men do—build fires, splash happily in a sunlit stream, trap a rabbit, adopt a stray dog that shows up in their camp one night—could have sprung from any fairy tale about young people lost in the woods.
Just as the rhythm of life in this mythic natural place has begun to seduce us, though, evil intrudes in human form and the segment ends. Happy Times Will Come Soon then cuts to an urban setting and a documentary-style series of talking heads. Surfacing the civilization-versus-nature dichotomy that the film’s switch in styles is pointing to, a series of people narrate a tale about a wolf in the woods that abducts a woman only to feed and protect her in its lair. Other people comment on the tale, man-on-the-street-style, before the film flips back to fiction mode with a long take on a beautiful young woman, Ariane (Sabrina Seyvecou), who’s drawn to nature.
Ariane spends her days exploring the woods, where she encounters a semi-feral Tomasso. In a series of wordless and luxuriously long takes, their beautiful bodies forming a series of sculptural tableaux, the two become lovers and Ariane runs away from her father’s farm to live with Tomasso in the wild. Beauty’s taming of the (equally beautiful) beast works as a live-action version of a popular myth, but its connection to the opening segment is nebulous. It seems highly unlikely that this is happening during the time Tomasso spent in the woods with Arturo, since Arturo is nowhere to be seen. But if it’s a flashback to before that time, how did this forest creature become the sweet, somewhat hapless boy of the first segment?
The final and briefest segment is another possible flashback that confounds as much as it clarifies. Tomasso and Arturo are both in prison—perhaps the place they were escaping at the start. They don’t know each other, but that may be because it’s Tomasso’s first day there. After a brief scene of Tomasso sitting alone in his cell as the Pogues’ bitter anti-incarceration song “The Auld Triangle” plays on the soundtrack, which seems unconnected to anything else, Tomasso gets a visitor whose presence throws the whole chronology and meaning of what we saw earlier into question once more, especially since it’s impossible to reconstruct a version of the events that doesn’t involve resurrecting at least one character who ought to be dead.
With Happy Times Will Come Soon, Comodin may have set out to make a poetic commentary on the dehumanizing effects of prison, but if so, his message has been muted to the point of incoherence. One of the people who comments on the tale of the wolf observes that everyone who hears the story will interpret it differently. Leaving room for viewers to think for themselves is a worthy goal, but this film’s audience is likely to spend a lot less time thinking about its meaning than trying to puzzle out what happened when.