Obbligo di Giocare - Zugzwang (Cesarano, 1989)

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Note: This review contains spoilers 

Early one morning, Marco (Kim Rossi Stuart), an architecture student and lighting tech for a local theatre, puts up posters around the EUR district of Rome promoting the group's latest show. Whilst lost in his task, he hears a gunshot and in the search for its source, discovers a murdered young couple lying out on the pavement. The culprit of the murders (Andrea Prodan) hops on his bike and casually cycles away unaware of Marco's presence. Marco is struck by the casual indifference of the killer and feels compelled to follow him back to his home. Haunted by what he has witnessed and unable to shake his unease, Marco feels compelled to return to the killer's house the next day and follows him to a local supermarket. Whilst stealthily tracking the man down the aisles, Marco witnesses the man stab a woman before casually leaving the scene of the crime rendering Marco in a state of shock. Marco becomes obsessed with the mysterious man and decides against reporting the crimes instead, continuing to voyeuristically watch the man kill; simultaneously horrified and intrigued by the senseless murders he bears witness to. This new found obsession begins to eat away at Marco's relationships; putting a strain on his romance with girlfriend Paola (Nicoletta Della Corte), further damaging his already frayed relationship with his mother (Sonia Petrovna) and alienating his university friends. Yet Marco is seemingly unbothered, consumed by an overwhelming compulsion to partake in a silent game of cat and mouse that will inevitably end in his untimely demise.

The only directorial credit of television crime procedural writer, Daniele Cesarano, Obbligo di Giocare - Zugzwang is a curious entry in the cannon of Italian thriller cinema feeling like somewhat of an experimental, art house styled interpretation of the thriller film. In his debut, Cesarano utilises a loose thriller styled framework to examine protagonist Marco's existential crisis against the backdrop of an alienating, contemporary Rome. Cesarano clearly draws influence from the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, both thematically and visually, as a means to explore Marco's psychology and his difficulties in finding meaningful connection to the world he inhabits, often conveyed through visual allusions and drawing immediate comparison to cornerstones of Antonioni's career such as The Red Desert (1964) and Blow-Up (1966). Obbligo di Giocare's title, which translates in English to Obligation to play, perfectly captures Marco's compulsion to partake in a precarious game with the killer despite the danger it poses as a means to simply feel something. Yet, Marco inevitably becomes a prisoner of his obsession and compulsion. The zugzwang part of the film's title refers to a situation in chess in which a player feels compelled to move despite it being disadvantageous, making their position significantly weaker which is the narrative crux of Cesarano's film. 

Obbligo di Giocare's script was a collaboration between Cesarano and esteemed Italian screenwriter, Ugo Pirro. Pirro's work typically veered towards the political and his collaboration with director, Elio Petri characterised the politically charged Italian cinema of the late sixties and seventies. The pair worked together on several of the key political films of the era such as We Still Kill the Old Way (1967), Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) and Property is No Longer a Theft (1973). Pirro was nominated for two Oscars for his screenplays for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (De Sica, 1970). When discussing a fairly obscure film like Obbligo di Giocare, it's difficult to ascertain the involvement of certain individuals in the writing process however, some of the thematic tenants of Pirro's work are evident in Obbligo di Giocare especially in regards to the ambiguity of Marco as a protagonist as well as loose thematic ideas concerning the malleable constructs of society and reality. At the time of production, Cesarano was only 27 and as a result, Obbligo di Giocare feels very much like the product of a young filmmaker - a comment not meant as a criticism but as a reflection of the director's distinct voice as a young man and what that brings to the fore in terms of ideas and ruminations. The thematic ideas surrounding identity, existentialist dread and growing ennui brought on by the realities of adulthood feel authentic and identifiable as concerns of a young adult who finds themselves increasingly alienated and disenfranchised in trying to ascertain his role in society. 

As a result, Obbligo di Giocare feels fairly academic in nature; a rumination on society, the family unit and the existential crise of a young man in Rome in 1989. There's little dialogue throughout the film with much of the story conveyed through visual storytelling which suits the film well as its ambiguous nature lends itself to interpretation. But despite the film's sparse dialogue, we are given enough of a window into Marco's life to feel empathetic towards his character and understand his inherent need to pursue the killer despite the great danger he exposes himself to as a result. Kim Rossi Stuart, in a relatively early role, imbues the character of Marco with a sensitivity, competently expressing his character's spectrum of emotions; from abject horror to morbid fascination. Cinematographer, Alessio Gelsini Torresi's lens perfectly captures Marco's tortured expressions in a series of close up shots that convey his character's innermost feelings without a need to vocalise them. 

Yet despite the dialogue in Obbligo di Giocare being somewhat secondary to the film's visual storytelling, the sparse conversations that are presented provide a fleeting insight into the situations the characters find themselves in. Whilst much of the film focuses on extensive stalking sequences between Marco and the killer, Cesarano intersperses them with insight into Marco's torrid personal life. Marco lives with his mother in a modest Roman flat and their relationship is fraught. The mother and son rarely communicate despite Marco's mother's best efforts. Marco is either monosyllabic in his responses or irritated by his mother's questions and judgements. It's clear that Marco's mother wants to understand her son but isn't quite sure how to relate to him and her attempts to do so alienate him further. Marco's mother seemingly has a lover, who potentially wants her to move in with him, but she is reluctant to commit to him and says she must speak to Marco about their relationship. The lover is dismissive of Marco's mother's concern for her son and states that it doesn't concern him yet a burgeoning relationship between Marco's mother and her lover clearly is a concern for Marco who has become increasingly alienated by the change in his family dynamic - dismissed by his mother's new partner. Marco's father is absent from the family home and the pair communicate through stilted telephone calls. Marco's father hasn't seen his son in months and attempts to reach out to him but is unable to communicate with Marco beyond asking how his studies are going. In Marco's second phone call to his father he directs his ire at his dad, expressing how frustrated he is at being incessantly asked how his studies are and the lack of face to face conversation between the two which he renders pointless due to the banality of their telephone calls. There's also potentially a reference here to Marco's father having a new family (a baby) which would again indicate uncertainly in Marco's family life pushing him out of the picture of both his mother and father's life although one could argue that it's Marco who is shutting them out to avoid his own feelings of hurt and inadequacy. Marco's conversations with girlfriend Paola also serve to highlight his apathy and indifference to the relationships in his life. Marco's pursuit of the killer is deeply personal and Paola's reluctance to understand Marco's obsession highlights the distance between them.

Further context is given to the film's thematic ideas via the theatre production that Marco conducts the lighting design for, offering somewhat of an insight into the film's underlying themes with characters on stage waxing lyrical about unhappiness, deception and betrayal  - all very real aspects of Marco's own life. One line in the play feels particularly pertinent "they pay for that little piece of happiness however they pay dearly" (paraphrased) which foreshadows the film's ending in which Marco finds perverse happiness in his final moments. Another line spoken on stage about women dying young foreshadows the fate of Marco's mother - the catalyst for the film's final act.  

But undoubtedly Cesarano's forte in Obbligo di Giocare, is his understanding of film as a visual medium with sublime use of cinematography, composition and the Mise en scène.  The visual artistry of the film is clear to see and the aforementioned influence of Antonioni is undeniable with Cesarano's stark use of  architectural landscapes conveying the alienation and disassociation that Marco inherently feels. The environments Marco traverses have an, at times, oppressive and claustrophobic feel. The cinematic landscapes deviate between vast open concrete spaces and maze like constructions with narrow spaces that convey the idea that everything in Marco's life is rapidly closing in on him. Various recognisable Roman locations are featured in Obbligo di Giocare such as the Villaggio Olimpico, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana and the Rome metro with the vast majority of filming taking place in the EUR district of the city. Italian critic, Claudio Bartolini commented on Cesarano's cinematic landscape having a quality that resembled the work of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico and it is a visual comparison that certainly has credence. Cesarano's imposing architecture consisting of facades and arcades, casting long shadows whilst exhibiting elements of the surreal certainly resembles de Chirico's surreal painted depictions of architectural landscapes.

Each environment that Marco stalks the killer through is constructed in a labyrinthian manner. Mundane settings such as supermarkets, car parks and institutional buildings become visual mazes conveying the cat and mouse, game like nature of Marco's pursuit of the killer and in turn, the killer's pursuit of Marco.    This maze like motif is present from the film's opening shot which depicts a glass fronted building's grid facade imitating the appearance of an aerial view of a maze or a chess board. This grid motif continues throughout the film extending through the labyrinthian environments and their symmetrical motifs and ornamentation. And when we think of the environments depicted in Obbligo di Giocare we inevitably are drawn back to the film's title and the use of the chess term Zugzwang which is reflected in these labyrinthian scenes - visually playing out like a strategic game of chess with Marco and the killer navigating around their environments like pieces on a chess board, anticipating when next to move even if in Marco's case, it's disadvantageous. Which in essence is the crux of the film, Marco is compelled to partake in this strange game despite the imminent and inevitable risk to his person. The grid like nature of these spaces conveys the idea that Marco is on a path to his inevitable end, his life has already been mapped out for him and he's simply following its regimented course. A concept that one could argue applied to his life prior to witnessing the murder at the film's beginning. 

Marco's profession as an architecture student, something that is frequently referenced throughout, feels fitting in a film that is preoccupied with architectural symmetry and space. Marco is also arguably the architect of his own downfall, compelled to follow the killer and seemingly willing to risk his life. In a telephone call with his father, Marco speaks of a class he's taking in mathematical analysis which again, mirrors the theme's symmetrical environments and the mathematical nature of chess and the calculated risk the killer and Marco take. 

Whilst much of the film's symbolism is conveyed through architecture, other visual motifs are present throughout Obbligo di Giocare, most notably the presence of water. Rain water, puddles, swimming pools, sea water and spilt milk feature prominently. Numerous meanings can be applied to the significance of water in a text but here in Obbligo di Giocare, I suggest that it represents the subconscious mind of Marco; a manifestation of his inner turmoil and unrest. The stillness of the sea in the film's final moments suggesting that Marco's now at peace. 

Cesarano is adept at conveying the anxious thrill Marco feels in his pursuit of the killer and the stalking sequences are well crafted drawn out sequences that cultivate a real sense of mood and foreboding. As mentioned, Obbligo di Giocare is largely devoid of dialogue with long swathes of the action contained to Marco tracking the killer yet the simplicity of what's happening on screen is strangely hypnotic with the visuals leaving a marked imprint on the viewer. In one particularly effective stalking scene that takes place in the Rome Metro,  Marco pursues the killer through eerily quiet underground passages and walkways. The location is one that's been used before in Italian thriller films from Mystére (Vanzina, 1983) to Dial:Help (Deodato, 1988) but here the location has less of a frantic, bustling feel instead taking on an almost dreamlike feel due to the lack of commuters. This surreal aspect is heightened when Marco loses sight of the killer at the top of an escalator and instead finds the corpse of the killer's latest victim ascend from below indicating Marco's own impending doom. 

As a director, Cesarano successfully straddles the line between aching familiarity and surreality splicing routine scenarios against fantastical notions. This is evident in the film's pivotal double murder which takes place at the break of dawn. Here, Cesarano captures life as it slowly judders to a start. It's a time that often feels safe; the start of a new day before anything of note happens. We see people queue at bus stops ready to start their days - the early morning feeling like a time of humdrum routine which makes the double murder that takes place at the film's start all the more jarring and surreal.  The killer's lack of reaction to the murder he has committed and lack of urgency to remove himself from the scene of the crime adds to this surreal feel alongside Marco's ability to successfully track him home. When Marco returns to the theatre after a number of other murders have taken place, the killer alerts him to his presence by sitting in full view of the stage, illuminated by the theatrical lights Marco controls. When the lights switch, the killer disappears leaving his jacket behind. Another example of Cesarano leading the audience to question the validity of what Marco witnesses by creating an improbable, surreal scenario.

What's particularly unnerving about Obbligo di Giocare - Zugzwang is the normalcy of the murders that take place and the familiarity of the environments they occur within; the mundane framing for violent deeds. The murders are fleeting; violent acts punctuating banal settings. Once they have occurred, they instantly feel unreal or imagined as normalcy promptly resumes. The semantics of the murders or their nature aren't what's interesting here. The murders aren't the crescendos of elaborately violent, stylish set pieces but fleeting moments of bloodless violence made all the more shocking by the humdrum environments they take place within. Due to the fleeting nature of the murders and the immediate return to normalcy, we question the validity of what Marco sees. Both the killer and Marco are able to evade detection or questioning leading us to question whether the murders are in fact a product of Marco's imagination, a manifestation of a fractured state of mind or real life events. The film's experimental like sensibility further serves to indicate that the film's proceedings are a figment of Marco's imagination, a rumination on Marco's psychological state. An idea emphasised in the scene in which Marco's bicycle is revealed to be the same as the killer's indicating the film's ending will have a marked psychological bent. Cesarano plays with his audience's expectations in the film's climax when Marco and the killer finally meet and we realise that the events both we the audience and Marco have witnessed are in fact reality. Marco himself seems to experience unbridled joy in his meeting with the killer amongst a maze of beach huts on a deserted beach, gleefully enjoying being pursued whilst seemingly accepting of his fate, smiling as he's shot. It's the first time we see Marco smile throughout the film's duration, typically depicted as despondent and conflicted; a man wrestling with an acute sense of unhappiness and obligation.  Marco's ennui is palpable throughout the film and one gets the sense that death for him is a way to feel something, that the pursuit of the killer gave purpose to Marco's life and that subsequently nothing else mattered even if it led him to his inevitable doom. Yet, there's a calmness to proceedings. Marco is accepting of death, willing to walk into it, positively relishing in it. Post Marco's death, the killer seems perturbed for a moment, surveying Marco's body before walking off. The film's final shot of a pier surrounded by water with no means to access it is perhaps a rumination on the isolation that permeates Obbligo di Giocare. The final beach location also echoes a conversation with Marco's mother in which she encourages Marco to go to the beach with his father so it feels fitting that this is his final resting place and the resolution of the game he was obligated to play until its natural conclusion. 

Obbligo di Giocare - Zugzwang is an evocative, captivating piece of cinema that cultivates a distinct mood utilising architectural landscape in a love letter to Antonioni and as a means of conveying the thematic ideas at the heart of the narrative. Cesarano's film is experimental in nature eschewing a traditional thriller narrative yet it's a film that doesn't seek to provide answers, rather to pose questions inviting the viewer to transpose their own thoughts and feelings to the ideas presented throughout. Whilst Obbligo di Giocare may be an acquired taste it's a film that I find myself mesmerised by, transfixed by the rich cinematic landscape and questions it poses about existence, humanity and the existential crises of coming of age in an increasingly unfamiliar landscape - concepts that are just as pertinent in the modern age. 

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