It used to be that filmmakers served up witchcraft, mutant babies, and the Devil himself as allegories for the anxieties of new parenthood. In Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts, we get something both blander and possibly more frightening: the 21st-century obsession with health diets as a menace to the family home. Pitched oddly between social drama and chamber horror, the resulting film is unfocused but sometimes unnerving, an uneasy fusion of realism and intimations of the supernatural that never fully takes hold.
Manhattan millennials Jude (Adam Driver) and his Italian girlfriend Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) don’t exactly meet under the most auspicious of circumstances, trapped in a Chinese restaurant bathroom while he wrestles with a stomach-rupturing bout of diarrhea that serves as a portentous incubator of their queasy relationship. Still, they fall madly for each other, and after a few scenes of torrid, tender coupling, Mina soon announces she’s pregnant. “What will we do with a child?” she wonders aloud to Jude, before Costanzo cuts to a nominally celebratory party scored to Irene Cara’s “Flashdance (What a Feeling),” comedic sledgehammer of irony duly noted.
Mina, who Rohrwacher gives a spacey but fiercely intuitive dimension, becomes convinced that her underweight newborn is an “indigo child” destined to save humanity, and shuns doctors and modern medicine in favor of a diet of organic oils and vegan products designed to nurture and purify her progeny. The approach doesn’t gel with engineer Jude, because he’s a man and men love logic and control, and he swiftly moves from empathy to domestic intimidation and conspiratorial kidnapping with child services, all the while abetted by his creepy mother (Roberta Maxwell), who may as well be the iron-balled queen bitch to his wife’s hysterical flake.
As that description implies, Hungry Hearts has its fair share of undiagnosed gender issues. Costanzo pushes the modern obsession with organic lifestyle and bespoke infant rearing to a justifiably satirical place, positing urban parents’ trend-fueled pursuit of natural diets as dangerous to both body and psyche. (One of the movie’s funnier scenes has Jude sneaking the baby off to a church to feed him ham, unwittingly offering up the body of some pig-Christ potentially freakier than mom’s vegan diet.) Yet this approach has its weirdly reactionary side and arrives largely at the expense of its female lead, whose agenda of infant purification is regarded as outright toxic by Costanzo’s loopy POV shots that align themselves with Driver’s sensible nice guy and his battle with modern female madness. (The idea that Mina could be a metaphor for New York’s oft-bemoaned young and tacky European gentrification is an amusingly tempting alternative, though fraught with its own side of good-old-days conservatism.)
But what if the movie was, in fact, on Mina’s side? It’s certainly a plausible reading, as Jude and his mother gradually get scarier in their vigilance to protect his offspring and—for this viewer, at least—Rohrwacher’s character becomes a fulcrum of calm and sanity, a misunderstood oracle even, charged with a grim and ultimately doomed mission of shepherding new and higher life into the world. The film’s final stretch introduces a degree of ambiguity to furnish such an interpretation, even as Costanzo appears ultimately skeptical of any supernatural overtones—his preferred formal gambit of shaky-camera realism, favoring his male character’s perspective, negates much of an alternate thesis. It’s telling that, for all the eerie naturalism, Hungry Hearts works best when it tips its hand toward the heightened: flourishes of a Bernard Herrmann-esque score suggesting Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive; the claustrophobic party and meddling elder drawing unmistakable allusions to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; a deer-hunting dream that potentially establishes Mina as a Lars von Trier-like female thrust into a world determined to paint her vision as lunacy.
Hungry Hearts’ unsettling coda is enough to support any number of off-the-wall theories, and its ambiguity at least elevates the film from the troubling quagmire of misogyny into which it wades at points. But Costanzo is never committed enough aesthetically to take a stance either way, and the movie too often flitters away like a disorienting daydream when a more operatic nightmare would have served its premise. Oh, what Andrzej Zulawski might have done with this material.
Published at Movie Mezzanine