By Murtaza Ali Khan
Surrogacy has been a subject of major debate for quite some time now. Those who are opposed to surrogacy generally try and make a case in favor of adoption. But what if adoption isn’t permissible such as the case in countries like Italy with regards to gay couples? Would such a couple then be tempted to accept surrogacy as the last resort to start their family? This conflict is at the heart of Italian filmmaker Sebastiano Riso’s second film, Una Famiglia, which was in competition for the Golden Lion at the 74th Venice International Film Festival. The film was recently screened in Delhi as part of the Habitat International Film Festival ’18.
Based on true events, Una Famiglia revolves around a couple that sells off their newborn babies to gay couples looking to start a family. Since the children are hard to come by, they charge premium prices in the order of 50,000-80,000 Euros per child. It’s all a business for the couple. Every year a new child is born and is sold off to a childless couple. Out of their greed, the couple itself doesn’t have a child to complete the family but they have enough money to afford a modest living in a Roman suburb. The wife feels the loneliness every time she sees the kids playing in the neighborhood but she is too afraid to express it to her husband. They engage in sexual activity as if it’s some kind of a ritual, perhaps aimed at discovering something that’s missing in their relationship. One day the wife decides that this cannot go on forever and so she secretly starts using a contraceptive to avoid any further pregnancy. What ensues for the couple is a dark and harrowing journey into the abyss of moral depravity.
Una Famiglia exposes the dark realities of a heartless capitalistic world that sees even a child as a product. And when a product fails to serve its purpose, it is practically useless. But the film is much more than just a critique of capitalism, for it also offers a unique perspective on how gay people look at relationships. Riso, who is openly gay, succeeds to a great extent, for the heterosexual population, in normalizing the urge of gay couples to start their own family. But his actual agenda goes much beyond in that he also endeavors to deeply examine the tender aspects of maternity, physical and psychological manipulation in relationships, and side effects of prohibition, among other things. The lead actors Micaela Ramazzotti and Patrick Bruel need to be commended for their unflinching commitment to the demanding roles and for letting Riso and his DoP capture them at their most vulnerable with their souls bared naked.
Speaking of prohibition, every time a commodity gets banned the need for it automatically creates a black market. Because of the fact that gay couples can’t legally adopt, they are forced to secure babies through other means. And since there is a demand for the newborns, there is a black market in place to cater to that demand. Now, Italy is a deeply religious country but sadly the very norms that prevent gay couples from adopting children are actually paving the way for more anti-religious, inhumane activities.
Una Famiglia is not an easy film to watch. Riso brutally examines his morally decadent characters; no one is spared from his cynical gaze. No wonder the film elicited extreme reactions from certain sections of the Italian society. The extent to which it infuriated certain sections can be understood from the fact that following the film’s release, Riso was attacked by a group of assailants in his Rome apartment as he suffered multiple abdominal and eye injuries. Apparently, the film also drew flak from the various gay associations in Italy and it is yet to be screened in France. The choice of handheld camera adds an edge to the tension between characters; instead of cutting to the reactions the camera physically moves back and forth to capture the reactions. Shades of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cold detachment are evident in the way certain scenes are framed. Consider the scene, shot in a long continuous take, wherein a man hurts a woman’s private parts, just as we see her begging him to go easy, the camera suddenly takes us outside the house into the everyday monotony as her screams become more and more distant, before returning to the house with the woman now sitting alone on her bed, writhing in agony. By choosing to take us away from the action, Riso actually tries to isolate his characters while ensuring just enough exposure for the pain to linger in the mind of the viewer.
Una Famiglia is not meant for the faint-hearted and requires strong viewer discretion. Just like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, Una Famiglia is a film that doesn’t go easy on the viewers just as it doesn’t go easy on the characters.
Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic based out of Delhi, India. He is the editor-in-chief of A Potpourri of Vestiges and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He has also contributed to The Hindu, The Quint, Wittyfeed, etc. He is on the guest panel for live discussions on the television channel News X.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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