Secrets are like seashells strewn across the beachhead of a desolate, angry ocean. Every human shoreline has them and yet few want to venture out into the cold, unyielding emotional sand and gather them up. We’d prefer to have them as decoration, elements of a psychological landscape that make us more complex than we probably are, that suggest experience when mistakes and missteps are probably the better reason for their existence. In a small town in Italy, the body of a beloved young girl starts a cynical inspector on a journey to uncover the myriad of mysteries surrounding her death. And as with most voyages of discovery, the revelations often fail to lead to anything conclusive.
It all starts with a missing child. Marta’s mother is frantic when her grade school age daughter doesn’t come home one day. In his capacity as local lawman, Commissioner Sanzio comes in from the city to investigate. Marta is eventually found safely, but she has horrific news. Local adult oddball Mario took her down to the lake, and there they discovered Anna. The star player on the town’s hockey team, the young girl has apparently been drowned, though there are no signs of struggle.
At first, Sanzio suspects the boyfriend. He is stand-offish and brash, and is eventually caught hiding several important items that belonged to Anna. Then the dead teen’s obsessive dad becomes a target. His fascination with his own offspring’s beauty sends up criminal profile warning signs. Soon, all clues seem to point to Corrodo and Chiara Canali, a recently separated couple who employed the victim as a babysitter - and it’s the death of their own handicapped child that Sanzio can’t seem to shake.
The Girl by the Lake is a stellar whodunit, a passive police procedural wrapped in the kind of communal enigma that would make David Lynch jealous. It tells a simple story - a body is found - and then proceeds to open doors and peak into closets overflowing with scandal and skeletons. For first time feature filmmaker Andrea Molaioli, the slow peeling back of evidentiary layers becomes a test of dread deferred. We keep waiting for the epiphany, the moment when Sanzio discovers the missing piece of this often obtuse puzzle. We anticipate the standard cat and mouse, cops cornering killer in a typical Tinsel town stand-off. Instead, like most legitimate police work, the conclusion comes inexplicably, lucked into via an early evening walk and a half-remembered bit of computer journal narration.
So instead of the ends, it’s the means of getting there that’s most important here, and this is where The Girl by the Lake really shines. Thanks to a terrific performance from Toni Servillo, we learn that Sanzio is his own walking contradiction. He suffers with familial issues - an institutionalized wife slowly fading from what appears to be Alzheimer’s, a daughter belligerent that her parents are passing from her life - and he uses that pain to put himself in the position of the victim. From there, he imagines motive and methodology, knowing that many of his answers are nothing more than hunches. With his sad sack face and wise maturity, Servillo sets us up to revel in the truths he uncovers.
Similarly, his suspect pool provides several other nuanced turns. Franco Ravera turns menacing manchild Mario into a pleasant pussycat, while Heidi Caldart brings a telling amount of personal resolve to Anna’s sadly neglected step-sister. The real surprise though is Valeria Golino, back in her native land (where she’s been reinventing her career for the last decade and a half) and bringing her “A” game. As a grief stricken mother, still torn by the death of her sickly little boy, she’s all pain, and all possibilities. We could easily see her as a cold, calculated murderer. Yet she also comes across as a victim.
And in that regard, The Girl by the Lake is one of those rare law and order efforts that’s not afraid to cast false witness and come to incorrect conclusions. Several times during the story, our detectives descend upon a suspect, interrogating them with professional pleasure, only to have their tactics turn up nothing but aggravation. Even more compelling, Molaioli offers up some purposefully directorial slight of hand, focusing on facets of the case that end up playing no part in the conclusion. Sure, this can seem like a cheat (many will wonder about the implied pedophilia of the opening), but it definitely adds to the arcane atmosphere and uncertain status of everyone involved.
In essence, The Girl by the Lake is a character study, albeit one guided via the need to resolve a crime. Sanzio is seen as a grumpy old man who is actually far more thoughtful and vulnerable than we think. His daughter is painting in a rather selfish, bratty light only to become more soulful in the end. From a pregnant DA to a tired assistant, our cop is surrounded by slightly off balance individuals. Even the suspects, initially offered as regular red herrings, develop into multifaceted “persons of interest.” Guided by Molaioli’s expert hand, and some gorgeous cinematography (the Italian countryside is simply stunning), we get lost in this insular world, recognizing that the truth is the only real way out.
That Girl by the Lake draws its conclusion so offhandedly, that it seems to drift to its denouement instead of building a big head of steam or suspense, might be seen as a flaw. Indeed, decades of cop and killer cinema have demanded that no investigation ends with a whimper. But just like the people who populate this particular section of the country, this mystery is indicative of its locale. As Sanzio sees it, everyone has a motive, if only because everyone has a connection. No one is completely innocent even though many have iron tight alibis. Even the victim violates several rules of the innocent. She’s not Laura Palmer, but there’s even a reason for her complicity. In many ways, she is much more than a mere dead girl found by a lake. This memorable movie is equally complicated.