Set in the span between Good Friday and Easter, The Wait is bedecked with religious themes and iconography that add up to little more than gorgeous window-dressing. The first shot of the film drifts through an inky darkness onto a wooden statue of Christ. As the camera circles the figure, ultimately falling to its heels, it seems suspended in black slime, like one of Scarlett Johansson’s captives in Under the Skin. The scene expands into a funeral ceremony in a Sicilian church, all solemn faces and chilling sound design (a man talks over speakers while a group of female singers chant), before eventually settling on the high heels of Anna (Juliette Binoche), a mother bereaving the death of her son, Giuseppe.
Like the Christ figure, Anna seems suspended in her grief, and director Piero Messina is fond of images that distance her from the audience. At her villa, housekeeper Pietro (Giorgio Colangeli) shutters the doors and hangs black drapes over every mirror. The only light that filters through the house comes through stained-glass windows, and Anna is seen in fragments that conjure Bergman: unkempt hair and dry, tired eyes. The film’s immediately stifling, hermetic air only barely oxidizes with the entrance of Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), a lover of Giuseppe’s who arrives for a previously planned visit.
The Wait’s subsequent tension results from Anna’s inability to tell Jeanne about her boyfriend’s death. Anna promises he’ll be home for Easter: for her, this is a desperate hope for a resurrection; for Jeanne, it’s an uncomfortable social situation rendered terminally awkward by Anna’s overwhelmingly apparent sadness. The premise is inherently stagy (it is, indeed, adapted from a play by Luigi Pirandello), but Messina doggedly tries to give the film a cinematic heft, mostly with the lavish tools gained from his work as an assistant director to Paolo Sorrentino: the xx’s “Missing” provides a theme song that serves as a melodramatic, yet cutesy, counterpoint to the film’s hermetic atmosphere; the Sicilian vista is surrounded by gorgeous images of vibrancy (a glittering pond) and decay (hills composed of volcanic rock); Anna prepares a carob flour pasta with the icy purpose of Jeanne Dielman.
Messina seems at home in his immaculately composed bourgeois miserablism, but his film is a sealed chamber, unwaveringly committed to Anna’s oppressive display of denial and deceit. Binoche, one of the world’s most expressive and empathetic performers, is reduced to the role of a stern hausfrau, stripped of the tiny hesitances and vulnerabilities that have allowed her to enliven some incredibly bleak material (Blue, Code Unknown). In one shot, she takes leave of Jeanne to retreat to her bedroom, where she heaves and coddles a bright pink inflatable raft. Devoid of context, the scene doesn’t do much but fetishize Anna’s mourning; here and in nearly every shot in the film, she’s staring off into a great and inaccessible void. Instead of investigating Anna’s grief, The Wait simply enables it.
The few moments of grace in The Wait come when Anna is able to view the world through the eyes of Jeanne, who’s tragically oblivious to the death that haunts the film. An impromptu dinner party with two handsome Italian boys (Antonio Folletto, Domenico Diele) suggests an alternate trajectory for the film, one where Anna reclaims her humor and her interest in others. (Binoche and de Laâge exhibit a strong chemistry when Messina isn’t bent on thwarting it.) After the young characters dance to the laughably on-the-nose Leonard Cohen song “Waiting for the Miracle,” the scene finds a way to pivot again to Anna’s untouchable anguish. It continues to dominate the proceedings, without meaning or momentum, until the promised day of resurrection.