Into the Labyrinth

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Dustin Hoffman and Toni Servillo in the same film? Into the Labyrinth (aka L’uomo del labirinto) is a properly intriguing prospect. Hoffman a madness-in-his-Method actor since his breakthrough in 1967’s The Graduate, Servillo the king of the hangdog deapan – or is that the deadpan hangdog? – and long-time collaborator with Paolo Sorrentino (in films like The Great Beauty and The Consequences of Love).

Before you get too excited, they share only one scene together, and that’s right at the end, an afterthought possibly tacked on to give the publicity machine more to work with (and I’ve obliged by using the resulting picture).

The two actors inhabit entirely different filmic universes, united only by the plot. In one Servillo plays dog-eared private detective Bruno Genko, more used to doing debt collection work, getting back on a case he dropped years before, of an abducted schoolgirl who has just resurfaced/escaped after 15 years of incarceration. The glory-seeking cops would rather he wasn’t involved, and Genko’s doctors have already told him his heart is about to give out, so… tick tock tick tock.

The girl, Samantha (Valentina Bellè), now a grown woman and in some distress, is being debriefed in hospital by the kindly Dr Green (Hoffman), a folksy, softly spoken man using a lot of carrot and a tiny bit of (psychological) stick to try and unlock the secrets of Samantha’s incarceration – the who and where, at least.

As I say, different filmic universes – Dr Green’s is all bright lights, calm, order, the burble of a hospital in the background, a drip on a stand, a cop posted outside the door. Genko’s is a David Lynch world of grotesque characters, surreal situations, lurid decor and lighting and bizarre plot turns, all set to a rinky-dink soundtrack (by Vito Lo Re) that’s inspired by Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtracks for Lynch.

Dustin Hoffman and Toni Servillo
Meet cute: Hoffman and Servillo

Green’s world is aseptic and clinical, Genko’s is diseased and fantastical. A heatwave is scorching the earth, forest fires are raging, the power keeps going down. As well as Lynch (there’s even a man with a rabbit’s head), there’s also more than a hint of Hieronymous Bosch in there, the colour red signifying the hell that Samantha has just escaped, or perhaps the one where Genko is imminently about to arrive. There is a lot of red, a lot.

Is it fanciful to imagine there is also an echo of Lars Von Trier’s first feature, 1984’s The Element of Crime? That was a neo-noir with a strong dreamlike and melodramatically Bosch-like quality, lit with similar bravado, and starring a charismatic deadpan actor (Michael Elphick in Von Trier’s case) who drives a distinctive cult car which seems also to have some significance beyond the textural – Elphick drove a bright yellow VW Beetle, Servillo has a convertible Saab 900. Both films are also set in worlds that are a future-retro jumble. In Into the Labyrinth people still use cassette recorders but also have up-to-the minute laptops, and when Genko visits a missing persons bureau (a crepuscular place known as Limbo) it turns out that it’s still using a card-file index system.

It’s a bit bonkers, and would be brilliant if David Lynch hadn’t been there before, or at least if writer/director Donato Carrisi had acknowledged that Lynch had been there before, not least in his decisions about pacing, which tend to the glacial. A 20-minute haircut wouldn’t do this film any harm at all.

The upside. Hoffman is always watchable, and though he isn’t asked to do an awful lot here, and you can guess which was his story is heading, he’s good. Servillo is the same. The dog eared detective suits him down to the ground. Few men smoke a cigarette so well these days. Or carry off a crumpled suit with such panache.

Into the Labyrinth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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