If you enjoy films about idealised, endless childhood summers, look no further than Favolacce. In fact, don’t look at far as Favolacce. Don’t even look in its general direction. Just turn around and walk the other way. If, however, you are a fan of Michael Haneke’s cinema of cruelty but always thought that its austerity needed a pinch of pitch-black humour? Then Favolacce (released in the English-speaking world as Bad Tales) by twin filmmakers Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo might just be your thing.
Favolacce, an Italian-Swiss production (and further proof that Swiss fiction films are so much more likely to be good if they’re not from the German-speaking part of the country), is a decidedly grim tale about adults, children and how the former screw up the latter with their toxicity. Set in a middle-class suburb of Rome inhabited mostly by young parents and their pre-teen offspring, the film tells of a long, hot summer during which the blend of parental cluelessness, paternal male toxicity and the instructions of a particularly disaffected teacher become deadly.
Many of the images the Brothers D’Innocenzo serve up are not miles away from those we’ve seen in many other films of idyllic childhood summers, but look a bit closer and it’s clear that rot has set in. The cinematography takes a look that could be dreamily hazy, along the lines of The Virgin Suicides, and makes it just a bit too glaring. One father’s laugh is held too long and the camera looks too closely at his discoloured teeth. The pregnant teen’s practised cynicism rings a bit too much of despair and the grown-ups all seem to stew in a murky soup of envy, resentment and disappointment of their own making. The children can’t help but soak it all up. They may not fully understand, but they recognise that their purpose is to be trophies for parents who look at life as a constant competition with the neighbours: the point of your son and daughter is to get better grades than those other kids, the pool you put up in the backyard is there to make those fathers who don’t have one feel inadequate. The fathers are the worst, imprinting their toxic behaviours on their offspring both accidentally and actively, but the mothers are not much better, telling their husbands what great fathers they are for their horrible behaviour. (The bourgeois suburban hellscape that Favolacce is set in is clearly gendered, even if there are flashes of the children’s heteronormative conditioning not quite having taken yet.)
Unhappy children sometimes dream of escaping by growing up and becoming adults themselves, but the adult world has little to offer these boys and girls, nothing but disdain and resentment. Romance, sex, relationships: even those just seem to be ways of being unhappy and confined. Favolacce offers its pre-teen protagonists little hope of escape, following the bad tale it is telling to the bitter end. How can the kids be all right if the grown-ups so obviously aren’t?