Former Palme d’Or winner and past Cannes jury president Nanni Moretti returned to a familiar berth in the Cannes competition on Sunday with his Rome-set drama “Three Floors.” However, it’s safe to say the Italian director is unlikely to repeat his feat from 2001, when “The Son’s Room” earned him the highest art-house accolade. Sad to report, this latest is one of the worst efforts in a great career.
Based on a novel by Israeli writer Eshkol Novo and originally set in Tel Aviv, “Tre Piani” is now set mainly in a large, middle-class apartment building in the Roman suburb of Prati. It looks at the intertwined lives of three families who live in it, among them Lucio (Riccardo Scarmacio) who is worried about what happened to his seven-year-old daughter; Monica (Alba Rohrwacher) who is suffering from post-natal depression and loneliness; and, on the top floor, Dora (Margherita Buy), a successful magistrate consumed by pain over her estrangement from her son, Andrea.
The film opens well, with a shocking car accident, a death and a birth. For a house in a quiet neighborhood, there’s suddenly a lot of drama on every floor and the reverberations continue over the course of the next 10 years as children grow up, husbands come and go and some of the older residents pass away.
It might have proven rich ground for societal metaphor or the human condition but Moretti — who directed and co-wrote the screenplay as well as playing a stern judge Vittorio, the father of reckless driver Andrea — never gets a handle on the layout of the building, always crucial when making anything architecture a key character in a film.
As the various episodes mount and intermingle, it all feels a stretch; some are barely in the realm of credulity, such as the behavior of Scarmacio’s Lucio towards an elderly neighbor and his teenage granddaughter (Denise Tantucci).
It’s one of those films that badly tests the patience as each storyline waits to tie itself up neatly and resolve — after two bursts of “Five Years Later” captions — into a honey pot of Italian optimism.
Even the Rome streets look curiously empty, and many scenes have an arid flatness about them, as if the film was shot in lockdown. (It was actually made in 2019.) Most surprising is that even with actors this established and accomplished, the performances feel hurried and sketchy, which really doesn’t help us believe the characters’ actions.
Perhaps it would have been better if Moretti had kept to the house as the principal locus of action; the drama dissipates in a failed attempt to include other locations, none of which is shot with any particular style or flavor.
After such strong, personal pieces as “Dear Diary” and “Aprile,” Moretti has many admirers. This is his 13th feature film, although his first adapting another writer’s work — but something has been lost in the translation and in the lack of signature style. You might even say that “Three Floors” really doesn’t work on any level.