Not of This World (Fuori dal mondo) (1999)

If a nun is on the fence in the first act, her habit must come off in the last. That’s near enough to what Chekhov wrote, at least as far as Italian director Giuseppe Piccioni is concerned. His recent film, Not of This World, now on DVD, begins swiftly: With less than a year to go before her final vows, a Milanese nun named Caterina (Margherita Buy) is on the fence about her betrothal to God. “Before you make plans,” the Mother Superior (Sonia Gessner) cautions, perhaps nudgingly, “you have to be sure of your choice.” She seems tuned in to Caterina’s ambivalence and we get the idea that something’s got to give.

Handily, a jogger accosts Caterina in a park shortly thereafter, handing over an abandoned newborn he’s discovered nearby. The jogger, it turns out, is a rather shady parolee, who shouldn’t have left his house to begin with and isn’t about to stick around. He takes it on faith, as it were, that the nun’s sense of moral duty is reliable. Who else in this world can you trust to care for an unwanted child? Caterina makes a helpless face. The baby yawns. The music swells.

Caterina’s sense of moral duty is reliable, of course. She examines the child for clues to his origin, and traces the sweater in which he is wrapped back to a Milan laundry service. The owner of the place, Ernesto (Silvio Orlando), is a particularly glum fellow. A blase businessman and walking-wounded bachelor, Ernesto is emotionally stunted, he will later reveal, from an earlier jilting.

The engine for his transformation is Caterina and Ernesto’s shared task of tracking down the infant’s mother (Carolina Freschi), a young woman formerly in Ernesto’s employ, and, fatefully perhaps, his bed. Ernesto rather enjoys the idea of fatherhood, in the same way that Caterina seems to enjoy this kind of almost motherhood. Actually, it’s kind of an issue for her, a personal not a religious one. We also briefly meet her own mother, who clearly took it personally when Caterina decided to become a nun: “There’s always something more important than your mother!” she snaps, and presumably her desire for grandchildren.

Ernesto, too, has had problems relating to people who should be close to him. He says he’s prayed for another chance to be better to them, but his prayers have never been granted. Nor have most of Caterina’s, she reveals. And so, under all these maternal and familial pressures/desires, her habit does come off — and it’s to Piccioni’s credit that we’re as startled and riveted as Ernesto is when it finally happens. The director wisely delivers his most potent gestures with calm simplicity, and without doting. It’s a nice thing, as that’s the sort of discretion we’ve come to expect from a couldn’t-be-made-in-America movie like this, a movie whose distinctive elegance and humanity are, well, not quite of this (Hollywood) world.

In that tradition, there’s great cinematic stuff here — furtive and desperate glances, aborted phone calls, unsent letters. The characters share a habit of confessing their most lonesome and insecure feelings. On the other hand, what in European film is new about furtive desperation and inner life confessionals (especially in a movie about a nun)? And is it unfair to attribute the preening tendency of Ludovico Einaudi’s score to his basic “Italianness”? Though it anchors Piccioni’s careful structure, the score is assertive in a way that somehow seems both bullying and apologetic. Near the end of the film, after a moment of dramatized reticence on the adoptive parents’ doorstep, Caterina removes the final piece of her nun’s habit, the crucifix, and gives it to them on the baby’s behalf. The music, Enya-like, swells again.

The moment — one of real human contact — was moving already, and cumulative. Piccioni’s apparent subject is estrangement. He’s no cynic (or he pretends not to be), but he does have a healthy respect for the many ways in which people fail to come together. If they try to invest in lives other than their own, it’s from ill-advised curiosity, inconvenient necessity, or clumsy guilt, and in any case the timing’s no good. “Things always happen at the wrong moment,” observes an uncertain young nun-in-training, “too early or too late, before, after…”

It doesn’t seem like Piccioni has a real solution in mind but he does have a humane goal, which is affinity. He creates a world in which an abandoned infant will certainly be attended and loved, but not without sending a ripple of upheaval through at least half a dozen other lives. The film isn’t quite courageous enough to fully examine its outlook, maybe for fear of catechizing, which it does adroitly avoid. But just why are we so out of sync with each other’s lives? Is God involved, and testing us? Will we ever pass? If Piccioni only glances at the big themes, and finally ends the conversation with a shrug, it is at least a shrug of gentle, agnostic humility, not apathy.