It took 4 films and eight years for Sebastian Lelio to get noticed. It happened in Berlin in 2013 when he presented Glory, the fourth film and turning point that changed his career, transforming him from a filmmaker adored by festivals to increasingly a world filmmaker and now, finally, a foreign filmmaker in America. He had to do it again first Gloryi.e. directing the American remake (titled Gloria Bell starring Julianne Moore and John Turturro, it won’t surprise anyone that it’s a watered-down version of the Chilean original), then directing an episode of a TV series and finally someone has entrusted him with a story and a budget sufficient to have a star in the lead (Florence Pugh , who however doesn’t do a great job, recites the determination well, as usual, but nothing else). With this capital he involved Alice Birch (perhaps the most interesting of the new screenwriters, already responsible for the adaptation of Normal People) and played his cards, that is, he shot the film with which to try to become someone in Hollywood: The prodigy. And it’s a great movie.
Netflix bought it, removing it from theaters, and it’s been online since November 16th. It’s a story that comes from a novel, in which a nurse in 1860 Ireland (the time of the great famine) is sent to check on a little girl who seems to have not eaten for months and months, without losing weight. Some think it’s a miracle, many hope so and others would like to prove that she is a scam. The protagonist is joined by a nun, with the same task of supervising the child and finding out why she is not starving. Here we stop, but the first outstanding feature of the film is precisely its writing and the fact that, given this cue, what happens and is discovered raises many more questions than before. It is not a film that rides on what we already think but one in which it is not easy to understand what should be done.
The prodigy after all, it is a story very much in line with those that Lelio usually tells, it is his polished cinema to impress Hollywood, plots in which women are the protagonists, squeezed into a world of men in which everything is difficult, above all its own legitimacy. Written like this it doesn’t sound exciting, but Lelio’s strength is precisely the ability to create (or adapt) stories and plots that demonstrate the thing without great lessons, but through the tension of characters progressively more and more with their backs to the wall. He happened to the transsexual of A fantastic woman, in a relationship with a man who dies at the beginning of the film and cut off from any form of mourning, ostracized and unacknowledged by the rest of his family. She happened to women of Disobedience (British film already with stars like Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams), in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood of London, in which it seems that they are not allowed anything, let alone love each other. And of course it happened to Gloria, a fifty-year-old woman looking for a chance at a romantic life in a world that she no longer considers (and yes, the film ends with Glory by Umberto Tozzi and it’s not ridiculous, on the contrary!).
Now, however, this nurse who believes in science finds herself in the most classic clash with religion, it would be easy for us to take a position (in favor of the truth and not in favor of superstition) if it weren’t for the fact that at a certain point imposing scientific truth implies death of the girl. How far can you go? What is more important? And above all, how can a woman, in a world that is related to that of the West, save a little girl from a group of men, each with an interest in her if the little girl were to die? In recent years these are the stories we tell the most of all, those of oppressed women who try to assert themselves, but when Sebastian Lelio does it (and especially in The prodigy) are always human stories, not only of women, they are universal stories of ethical dilemmas wrapped up in a very precise context.
The prodigy it is most likely, after Glory, Lelio’s most sophisticated and complicated film, but also the right one for the American market, because it is structured in layers. There is the first level, that of the plot with its plot full of questions, turns, discoveries and ambiguities. Then more deeply there is the fact that the whole film is shot like a contemporary horror, with that photography, those shots and that music, to create an oppressive sense around the protagonist and to say that the position of the woman is not different from the persecution of a demon. Deeper still are the beginning and the end of this costume film, which instead are shot in the present, on a studio, with a voice-over that admits the fictional nature of what we are about to see and tells us that everyone has their own narration in this story, and believes in it to the end. Everyone will be able to decide for themselves what it means, certainly that ending with the narrator who only says “In, Out” explains well how entering and exiting a film is not a neutral operation and what we saw in there is also true outside , in our world.