The Girl by the Lake is an Italian film about a murder. Released in 2007, and directed by Andrea Molaioli, the film walked away with 10 Davids which are Italy’s equivalent of our Oscars. Among the winning categories were Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing to name only half of the awards. I’ll admit to not having heard about this film, but on the recommendation of my brother, I ordered it from Netflix.
Adapted by Sandro Petraglia from the novel written by Norwegian writer Karin Fossum, the film unspools slowly. Little by little, we, as well as Inspector Sanzio become aware of facts about the people in this small hill town in Northern Italy. The pace is leisurely, or if your prefer, languid. There’s also a neat bit of misdirection right at the start of the film. We watch a cute seven year old little girl march off towards home, only to be met at intersection by a small truck. To our dismay, and after the little girl pointedly tells the driver of the truck that she shouldn’t go off with him because her mother will worry, she climbs into the cab of the truck anyway. Fade out.
As you might have expected, soon her mother is frantic as the girl has not returned home.
The police from a nearby city are called in and that would be Commissario or Inspector Sanzio, played marvelously by Toni Servillo. He’s a middle aged man, and he has his own family issues and problems to deal with. But he is from the Homicide Division and he is very good at his his job. While he is questioning some townsfolk about the missing little girl, he gets a phone call. A body has turned up. This is the titular girl by the lake.
For most of this film’s 95 minutes, we are along side this Inspector. He’s very cerebral and intuitive and has an amazing gift of getting people to open up to him. The film is less about watching a detective do his thing, and more about watching a man who can relate to almost anyone he meets. This is to say that this case is not really solved through deductive reasoning as much as it is about our detective being in the right place at the right time when people are ready to divulge their secrets or face their own realities.
The real charm of La Ragazza del Lago which is Italian for The Girl by the Lake, is the joy of watching the beautiful settings captured on film. The film has some of the most beautiful imagery you’ve ever seen, and I’m not talking about majestic mountain peaks, or sunrises or sunsets. Just the street scenes, or when we are in a suspect’s home, or at the interrogation when the police are grilling a suspect. The lighting is so natural, so beautifully natural, that it is almost breathtaking.
The music is very good too. Now think about the fact that this film is almost completely devoid of action. We never do see the murder, either as it happens or in a flashback. There’s no guns in sight, and there’s only one small chase scene when a suspect tries to flee on foot. What this means is that the music has no high moments to connect to. There’s not even a single moment when the music must reach a crescendo; yet you are aware of it just as you would be aware of the differences in touching fabrics, or surfaces. It is noticeable and you will appreciate it.
Toni Servillo, as the Inspector, was a marvelous choice for the lead. He’s well groomed, he’s good looking without being the least bit flashy, and his directness is welcomed. He does not bully people, but he can get tough when he thinks a suspect is giving him the runaround. He is also charming and the women he meets are obviously at ease with him, if not outright attracted to him.
The screenplay does lead us around to some wrong conclusions, but this is not an unknown feature of detective stories. It is part of the charm of why people read detective novels, and why other people make them into films. There’s no grand reveal like you may have seen on television over the years. All the suspects are not collected in one room only to be eliminated one by one by the detective. There’s some forensics that come to light but this was done in just one scene.
My opinion is that this was a different kind of murder mystery. Despite the fact that we have a film with no high speed automobile chases, no gun play, no exotic locations all over the world, and definitely no filmy pyrotechnics or directorial and editing gimmicks – the film works exceedingly well. It is beautiful shot and a delight to watch.
After watching The Girl by the Lake you will feel that you have just watched something quite good, quite different, a definitely worthy of the awards that it has won.