The mystery of The Girl by the Lake revolves around fathers, struggling to live in between eras, when their authority is questioned, their desires challenged, and their efforts deemed inadequate.
"I was dreaming," murmurs Anna Anna (Alessia Piovan), "You shouldn’t have woken me up." Her boyfriend Roberto (Denis Fasolo) nuzzles her, their forms entwined and lovely in the soft morning light.
This fleeting moment, as Anna passes from sleep to consciousness, comes at the beginning of The Girl by the Lake (La Regazza Del Lago), available on IFC's Festival Direct VOD programming as of 29 July. Sweet and intimate, it suggests both the fragility and enduring nature of this transition, before obligations and anxieties and knowledge intrude. The scene cuts away just before the moment ends, in order to track the progress of a little girl, Marta (Nicole Perrone), whose walk along a quiet street, the camera tailing her from behind, is interrupted by a red pickup truck. She speaks with the unseen driver, then gets in, an image you've seen before, an image full of foreboding.
It's to the film's credit that these two plots don't come together quite as you might anticipate. That's not to say the movie eschews conventions: based on the novel Don't Look Back by Karin Fossum, The Girl by the Lake does involve a murder mystery and does bring in an intriguing sort of inspector, Giovanni Sanzio (Toni Servillo), as your guide. But while his search for truth drives the plot, his progress is roundabout, and his solution less categorical than vaguely hopeful. As he figures out the possible motives and means of the murder, the film also reveals details about Sanzio, the background for his careful investigation and mournful mien.
Sanzio first appears in his apartment in the city, reading a letter just arrived by post ("My darling, I've been longing to write you for ages"). It's not clear who has written it, but he is visibly distressed to read it. In his next scene, the camera approaches slowly, hovering over his form, asleep on his sofa, a blanket over him. A phone call summons him to the small Northern Italian town where Anna's body has been discovered, by the titular lake, and so he heads to the mountains, where the roads are windy and the sky is huge, where he might put aside his own regrets, or at least feel distracted.
Against a beautiful backdrop, Sanzio and his team -- the young inspector Siboldi (Fausto Maria Sciarappa) and longtime colleague Alfredo (Nello Mascia), as well as local cop Giani (Sara D'Amrio) -- interview a series of possible suspects, including Roberto and Anna's father, sister, and friends. Each appears to be hiding something, and several note how hard that tends to be: "You can't have any secrets in a town like this," says Corrado (Fabrizio Gifuni) father to the small boy Anna used to babysit. Still, Sanzio observes, the stories told by all his interview subjects need revisiting and filling out, a process he undertakes with dogged precision. Repeatedly, Sanzio runs up against the problem of truth -- what it means for different people, how it changes over time and situation.
Speaking with Roberto, the most obvious suspect, the inspector becomes frustrated. "Tell me the truth," he presses. The boy looks away, at first hanging his head, then staring directly into the older man's eyes, defiant and annoyed. "I told you the truth," Roberto says, "You just don’t believe me. You tell me what the truth is, then." Sanzio narrates his version of the murder, ostensibly granting the suspect a way to admit guilt. Roberto resists, rocking his body and shaking his head: "Not true, not true, not true, not true," he repeats, "Not true." The words hang in the air, and Sanzio pauses, as if to contemplate them.
On one level, the scene is too familiar, the seasoned interrogator confronting a likely suspect. But here the stakes are complicated by Sanzio's own story. That has to do with the letter that so saddens him at film's start, reframed by his daughter Francesca (Giulia Michelini), whom he means to protect. When she asks about her mother (Anna Bonaiuto), whom she hasn't seen since the mother was institutionalized, Sanzio can't come up with the words to describe what's happening. Independent-minded teenager Francesca resents his paternal efforts. "You wonder why I'm angry at you," she says, the frame close on her face and he holds her to his chest. "You never tell me the truth. You treat me like a five-year-old."
While it can be argued that the truth of her mother's condition (Alzheimer's) is elusive, Francesca's desire to know is predictable, as is her father's inability to explain. The details of their relationship change during the movie, affected by his interactions with other fathers and their children. Early on, Sanzio is told that Roberto lives with his mother, and that "There is no father." He shakes his head as he walks toward the house. "There's always a father," he says, apparently to himself.
The mystery of The Girl by the Lake revolves around fathers, struggling to live in between eras, when their authority is questioned, their desires challenged, and their efforts deemed inadequate. Sanzio's struggle is displaced, at least briefly, onto his investigation. But he returns to it, at least metaphorically, when Giani, who is pregnant, laments her husband's decision not to attend the birth. She wonders what Sanzio did when Francesca was born, and when he confesses he also "opted out," both Sanzio and Giani feel and appreciate the regret he feels, concerning this decision and, no doubt, others. The pause here is brief, like the moment in Anna and Roberto's bedroom that opens the film. It's typical of this careful, absorbing film's nuance and indirection. In its unresolved stories, The Girl by the Lake reveals delicate truths.