Grief has rarely felt quite so empty as it does in Quiet Chaos. But such are the risks of building a film around a tragedy-stricken man who represses almost all signs of emotion: It limits the affective possibilities of the narrative, which, despite the tone of coolish contemplation struck by director Antonello Grimaldi, remains the principal level on which Chaos seeks to function.
After saving the life of a drowning woman on the beach, middle-aged businessman Pietro (filmmaker Nanni Moretti, who also co-scripted) returns home to his country villa to find his wife suddenly struck dead. But rather than go back to work, he takes to spending his days sitting on a park bench opposite his 10-year-old daughter’s school, passing the time by compiling mental lists (for example, all the airlines he’s ever flown), achieving a nodding acquaintance with the park regulars (including, somewhat questionably, a mentally retarded boy), and becoming something of a local celebrity. As he drifts through his new life, Moretti remains largely impassive, his character’s repressed sorrow finding its expression in odd, though always subdued, behaviors, rather than any overt emoting, a strategy that, while interesting in its observations about the grieving process, tends to create an unwelcome distancing that works against the film’s essentially humanist orientation. So the two moments in which he does break through (a crying bout in his car and a feverish sex scene), while seemingly geared to viewer response, ultimately register as far more cathartic for character than for audience.
More successful are the scenes charting Pietro’s interactions with his daughter, Claudia (Blu Yoshimi), who seems even less perturbed by the death than her father. A sweetly inquisitive young girl, she engages Pietro in warmly probing back-and-forths that seem genuinely productive for both parties and imparts to the moments between the two an emotional authenticity lacking from much of the rest of the picture. Otherwise the filmmakers seem somewhat adrift, unsure of quite what direction to take things. A potential plotline about Pietro making posthumous discoveries about his wife’s previously unglimpsed activities is raised only to be dropped. His somewhat hysterical sister-in-law shows up, rather pointlessly, to tell him that she’s pregnant by her married lover. And in the film’s chief subplot, his co-workers keep visiting him to provide updates on his company’s upcoming merger and the resultant power struggles, a potential interesting inquiry into corporate politics that seems chiefly designed to track Pietro’s growing alienation from his former life.
Then there’s the near constant music on the soundtrack—both Paolo Buonvino’s borderline schmaltzy score as well as a small selection of pop tunes—that aims to fill in the emotional gaps left by the film’s sketchy framework. From the opening beach-rescue sequence in which a percussive rattle insists that we find the action exciting, to bathetic piano chording that attempts to bring to the surface Pietro’s submerged sadness, the soundtrack tries to do much of the work that the rest of the picture seems unable to effect. While Grimaldi’s refusal to recreate a typical tear-streaked post-tragedy drama is no doubt admirable, his use of music serves as a “tell” that he doesn’t fully trust in his approach. And given the flimsiness of what he does achieve, he’s probably right not to.