The lives of dysfunctional families are drawn together in a grim but magnificently shot morality play from the D'Innocenzo brothers
From the moment the narration kicks in on Bad Tales, we know something is amiss. A careful, considered drawl sets out the beginnings of the plot in a tone reminiscent of Rod Serling introducing a Twilight Zone mystery before its superb, bewitching cinematography presents a suburban sprawl at once familiar and alien. This excellent sophomore effort from the D'Innocenzo brothers takes us out into a suburb of Rome at the tail end of a sweltering summer and forces us to see its moral rot through the eyes of the children who live there.
Initially, Bad Tales looks to be a study of familial rivalry, as two hatchet-faced dads compete with each other vicariously through their respective children’s achievements. But the story soon takes a stranger turn as the pathetic, angry adults take a back seat to a series of rather unhealthy comings-of-age. Of the child ensemble, 12 year old Dennis (Tommaso Di Cola) is the standout, the heart of the story who sees the decay of his family and environment with startling clarity, all while harbouring an obsessive crush on his pregnant teenage neighbour.
There’s an omnipresent dread throughout Bad Tales, and a tragedy of Biblical proportions soon feels inevitable. Abusive fathers constantly break down in tears, reassuring one another of their masculinity by sharing their violent sexual fantasies, while the disinterested mothers ignore their kids, who seem to share some sort of hive-mind. It’s an extremely disconcerting concoction, with the air of a dream that’s not quite a nightmare, but still leaves you feeling unsettled once you wake up.
Superb camerawork adds to the surreal atmosphere, as the D'Innocenzos consistently find imaginative and surprising ways to frame their scenes without ever feeling like they’re being showy for the sake of it. They also find room for levity amongst all the darkness – a scene in which Dennis awkwardly turns down the sexual advances of his girlfriend is blackly hilarious – ensuring the cruelty of so many of the characters never gets overbearing.
Bad Tales is one of the few films I’ve seen that has genuinely insightful things to say about the effect of the internet on children, providing them with a power in the unrestricted shared consciousness they can have, but also warping their minds with access to pornography and consequence-free brutality. It’s a distressing and considered thesis, but not one that ever beats you over the head or feels preachy, leaving you to draw your own conclusions as the devastating denouement approaches.
The strange timelessness of the setting – there’s a distinctly nostalgic vibe to the houses, but everyone’s wielding a smartphone – lends itself very well to the Old Testament stylings of the ending, pulled off with directorial subtlety and superb performances. Having previously worked with Matteo Garrone as writers on his brilliant crime 2018 thriller Dogman, the D'Innocenzo brothers prove themselves as the natural successors to his grippingly grim vision of Italian blue-collar life with this kaleidoscopic look at unfulfilled depravity and childish rage.
Bad Tales is now streaming on MUBI.Where to watch