‘Girl by the Lake’: An Excellent Premise for a Classic Detective Story

In a quiet town in Northern Italy, a young girl disappears, possibly an abduction victim. Commissario Sanzio (Toni Servillo) is called in to investigate, and he quickly discovers that the child is fine. However, the trail of clues from this event leads to a deadlier investigation – a beautiful young woman’s murder. Found by a lake with few clues about the act, hockey star Anna (Alessia Piovan) had numerous friends and associates with possible motives. Nearly everyone has something to hide, which makes Sanzio’s efforts that much harder.

Girl by the Lake provides an excellent premise for a classic detective story, but Director Andrea Molaioli has limited interest in the story’s procedural aspects. The camera seems more interested when depicting Sanzio’s troubled relationship with his daughter Francesca (Giulia Michelini). With his wife losing her memory at a local care facility, the detective struggles to stay focused on the difficult case. Each suspect has a clear motive and makes it difficult for even Sanzio’s sharp mind to sift through the emotional rubble.

Based on the novel Don’t Look Now by Karin Fossum, this story provides an intriguing mystery with several believable resolutions introduced as possibilities. The simplest explanation involves the boyfriend Roberto (Denis Fasulo), who acts especially shifty during his interactions with police. The young guy insists that he’s innocent, but the evidence suggests otherwise. The interrogations between Sanzio and Roberto come closest to the expected procedural moments, yet they still pack an emotional punch. The detective is not the skeptic you might expect to see as the protagonist in this genre. Hardened by his family issues, Sanzio appears ready to accept the first likely suspect and return to his frustrating life.

While investigating the young girl’s disappearance at the story’s beginning, Sanzio has little faith in the story of the mentally challenged Mario (Franco Ravera). The inspector questions the nervous guy mercilessly, but his pursuit does eventually reveal Anna’s body. There’s a method to his grim approach, even if it pushes aside chances for friendship with colleagues. They respect Sanzio’s skills and give him major levity, but also keep their own emotional distance from the bad-tempered guy.

In her directing debut, Molaioli displays the confidence of a veteran filmmaker and lets the story play out without resorting to overly clever techniques. The one action scene, a brief chase on foot through the angelic countryside, is well-done without overdoing the drama. This tense, quiet sequence takes place at the film’s midpoint and isn’t the story’s climax. The final act just involves a series of conversations. The deliberate pace might lose a few viewers, but it rewards those willing to stick it out. The ultimate revelations are stunning without resorting to any Shyamalan-like false twists.

This DVD release only includes the theatrical trailer, which is a disappointment. A commentary or at least a brief interview with Molaioli would have been a welcome inclusion. This is not a major surprise given its minimal promotion in this country. Sadly, the trailer completely misrepresents the story as a conspiracy where a lone detective stands against nefarious beings trying to hide the truth. This is totally false because Sanzio is extremely resistant to a solution beyond the most direct possibility. Selling the picture as a surprise thriller, instead of a character-driven detective story, may frustrate some viewers.

Girl by the Lake mainly looks at a single case but ends up introducing an even more heinous act from the past. The events are closely related and present what everyday people can do when pushed to the brink of their sanity. Toni Servillo does an excellent job conveying Sanzio’s resistance to believe the worst, even when it’s staring him in the face. His stunned expressions when the truth becomes evident are haunting and match our feelings as the audience.

This excellent picture won ten well-deserved David di Donatello Awards, which are the Italian equivalent to the Oscars. It also earned recognition at the Venice Film Festival for the director and star. The low-key storyline deceptively pulls you into the world of this small town and reveals the emotional burden carried by many residents.

RATING 7 / 10