Franz Kafka was born in Prague and died in a sanitarium outside of Vienna.
But his Kafkaesque nightmare of maddening bureaucracy run by heartless, buck-passing functionaries lives on just to the south, in the courts, hospitals and government offices of Italy.
Italian police brutality and legal, ethical and moral lassitude gave the world “The Last Seven Days of Stefano Cucchi.”
The film about Cucchi’s arrest and death in custody, “On My Skin,” is a slowly unfolding horror of callous Italian indolence. A man is arrested for drugs, charged with intent to distribute and then beaten — off camera. The evidence of that beating is all over his face, his inability to stand up straight or stay awake.
No judge asks about it. No prosecutor is appalled and confrontational with the cops, the Carabinieri. Every police official down the line sees his condition, some sheepishly ask concerned questions. Many use the phrase “a very serious charge” when Cucchi finally starts telling people he was beaten, but officialdom’s first worried question in every phone call is aimed at whatever the Italian acronym for “CYA” might be.
Tell me again how SURE you are “Amanda Knox Did It!” I wouldn’t trust these Pagliaccis to prosecute a jaywalker.
And the ass-covering extends to doctors, nurses and paramedics, not helped by the beaten man’s fear, and a kind of stubborn rage that sets in with his worsening physical and mental condition. He is enfeebled, missing his medication, afraid things will only get worse if he tells. Denied his own legal counsel, his family not allowed to see him via an ever-changing carousel of bureaucratese excuses, he goes into cardiac arrest in the first scene in “On My Skin.”
The movie that follows is a somber, slow-walk to doom, death by official Italian indolence.
In October of 2009, Stefano, “Ste'” to his family (Alessandro Borghi, very good), is shown working for his surveyor-father, working out at the gym, attending mass, chatting with his brother-in-law and eating dinner with his parents. He won’t be spending the night with them, he says.
At his place, he’s got this thin slab of chocolate colored hashish he has to carve up.
But there’s little alarm when he’s sitting, talking in his car about eggplant parmesan with a friend, when the cops show up. There’s nothing in the car. No money was changing hands. They were smoking — cigarettes.
“Being funny, huh?” the cops bark (in Italian, with English subtitles).
“Shut up. Nobody asked you.”
Rousting them, the cops find drugs on him, just a little dab of this and that. Illegal, but “possession” sized amounts. Oh no, they’ve nabbed a DEALER. The detectives who roll up afterwards are sure of it.
Stefano doesn’t know it, but his life clock just started ticking down its final week.
We see the humiliation of booking — yes, he had drugs on him — hear his pleas to the police not to wake his parents with all this. Good luck with that, pal.
And then, a gap. We see him hustled out of a cell and into court. One of his eyes is swelling shut. His back is killing him, he says. He needs his epilepsy medicine, needs to call his lawyer.
Oh no. Some bottom ten percent of his law school class public defender has been assigned him. He doesn’t need to call anybody. Really he doesn’t. He finds this out in the courtroom. The nightmare which began with an over-eager arrest and mounted with whatever happened with those detectives off-camera now becomes life and liberty threatening.
Writer-director Alessio Cremonini tells this story in the most deliberative way — patiently, layer upon layer of bureaucracy added on. Yes, this guy had drug problems and perhaps he was selling on the side. Maybe not.
But the viewer cannot escape the growing outrage at his treatment, the growing dread at what’s coming and the sadness of Stefano’s plight.
He is sick, with serious back and almost certainly internal injuries. He is not getting even the most superficial treatment — endless agonies of X-rays, transport from this hospital to the next.
He faces this alarming death spiral alone. Officious peons doggedly refuse to let anyone who cares about him see him. Callousness surrounds him in his direst moments.
And every taker of the Hippocratic Oath he meets is either put off by his understandable paranoia and defensiveness, or content to let the system take the hit. Lots of Italian medical professionals give the broad “My hands are tied” gesture, or brusquely wear it on their faces.
Yes, the world knows that if you travel to Italy, don’t do anything to get you in trouble with the Carabinieri. God knows if they do something to you the locals won’t want to hear about it. Surely they have a “Carabinieri Lives Matter” movement to go with their infamous record of prisoners dying in their custody.
But as this slow but damning drama makes clear, you don’t want to get sick over there either. Forms to fill out, procedures to be followed — rigidly. Don’t make a fuss. Just accept their “Not my patient/not my responsibility/you’re being ‘difficult’/sign this” indifference and take it like every other Italian. If you die, it’s on somebody else’s hands. Always.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Running time: 1:40