Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s moral dilemma drama “The Dinner” was turned into a properly tense and claustrophobic night-out drama by Oren Moverman (“The Messenger,” Love & Mercy”) pitting Richard Gere and Steve Coogan against each other a couple of years back.
But the first version of that novel was filmed in Italy. Ivano Matteo’s “The Dinner” has enough that’s different about it to make a viewing worth your while. The bones of this story — two privileged siblings discuss what to do about a crime their kids may have committed — don’t change, but the approaches to it certainly do.
Moverman’s film was set entirely at a restaurant, a meal where all that’s transpired is brought up in an increasingly tense and testy conversation. It’s practically a filmed play.
Matteo’s movie gives us two dinners, with the tragedy in question happening between them, taking the temperature of an increasingly short-tempered Italy and the amoral kids the inattentive wealthy are raising, taking its sweet Italian time to get around to “the inciting incident.”
Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio) is a pediatric surgeon dealing with a paralyzed little boy caught in the crossfire in a road rage incident involving the kid’s father and a trigger happy cop. Paolo and wife Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) are just starting to have worries about 16-year-old Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a brooding, acne-covered teen with all the insecurities that comes with.
Massimo (Alessandro Gassmann) is a high-rolling defense attorney with a cavernous townhouse, a second wife (Barbora Bobulova) and baby, and a 16 year-old daughter, Benedetta — “Benny” (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers).
Benny and Michele are tight. Their dads? Less so. Massimo is defending the cop who injured Paolo’s patient.
“I’m not God,” he shrugs (in Italian, with English subtitles). “I don’t judge anyone.”
A party that Benny drags social outcast Michele to changes that. The kids come home sulking. And then Clara sees the CCTV video on a news program. Two teens beat a homeless woman into a coma. Could they be Michele and Benny?
The tiny cracks between the competitive brothers, their civil-but-unfriendly wives and the parents and their children become chasms as tensions rise, panic sets in and tempers flare.
Moverman probably went to school on this version of “The Dinner,” figuring out how to tighten and raise the tension of the piece. Matteo takes entirely too long to get down to business.
But the Italian film scores over the Hollywood (indie) one in feeling more grounded in reality. The brothers are closer to equals, and their moral stances clearer and more defensible from the start.
How will those stances change over the course of the drama? That’s the appeal.
Seeing a 2014-15 movie like this, set in an Italy long before “Covid 19” was on the world’s lips, gives it an added pathos. All those stylish, beautiful people, design that awes, from the old civic architecture to the striking apartments, casual wear to cars — under viral lockdown as I write this.
Getting to know the children better is a plus on the Italian film’s side, too. We get just enough background to carry around doubt, even as the parents grapple with theirs.
“I know my son. Do you?”
It’s not as good as “The Hollywood Version,” but “The Dinner” still makes for an engrossing immersion in families under stress, siblings still “rivals” when the stakes — years later — are at their highest.
Now streaming on Film Movement.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, teen drinking and smoking, nudity, profanity
Cast: Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessandro Gassman, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Barbora Bobulova, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers and Jacopo Olmo Antinori
Credits: Directed by Ivano de Matteo, script by Valentina Ferlan and Ivano De Matteo, based on the Herman Koch novel. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:34