Brittle housemaid Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport) and widowed ex-cop Guido (Filippo Timi) are two lonely, lovelorn souls who unexpectedly hit it off at a speed-dating event in Turin, Italy. When the pair venture out of the city for a romantic getaway in the country things take an unexpectedly dark turn. Sonia emerges from this harrowing experience a shattered woman. No longer sure of her own state of mind she is plagued with possible hallucinations and haunted by a photograph of herself with Guido in a place she has never been.
Several years after picking up a clutch of awards at various international film festivals, La doppia ora (The Double Hour) is still nowhere as celebrated as it ought to be. Maybe that is just as well given the film's pulverizing effect stems from knowing as little about the story as possible. A mind-bending thriller that also functions as an affecting, albeit twisted and strange love story, this fiendishly well-constructed Italian production fulfills a golden genre rule. It keeps the viewer in a near constant state of anticipation and unease, uncertain of what will happen next. Somewhat like Takashi Miike's Japanese thriller Audition (1999), only mercifully nowhere as gory in its third act, The Double Hour opens on a charmingly low-key note, introducing us to two instantly engaging and sympathetic characters. We follow Sonia and Guido's daily grind, observing their quietly hollow, unfulfilled lives and slowly become invested in seeing them take that next step in their tentative romance. And then the story, ingeniously crafted by screenwriters Alessandro Fabbri, Ludovica Rampoldi and Stefano Sardo, flips our perception of their relationship, personalities, goals, and ultimately even reality itself upside down.
Driven by a delicately pitched, wholly empathetic lead performance from Russian actress Kseniya Rappoport (who deservedly won the 'Volpi Cup' for Best Actress at the 2009 Venice Film Festival), the plot advances one subtly disorientating beat at a time. Our sympathies lie with the sad-eyed and vulnerable Sonia who finds herself hassled not only by Guido's suspicious policeman friend Dante (Michele Di Mauro) but a creepy hotel guest (Fausto Russo Alesi) of seemingly lecherous intent. Then eventually assailed by ghostly visions that leave her questioning her past and present state of mind. At various points throughout just when the viewer thinks they have everything figured out the film keeps springing twists that alter our perception of not just the characters but reality itself. At the risk of spoiling anything, The Double Hour pulls off a conceit thriller maestro Brian De Palma attempted several times before. It succeeds where De Palma largely failed to impress those that were not already fans chiefly because director Giuseppe Cappotondi keeps things grounded and just about believable. Even so, although Cappotondi forgoes De Palma's operatic approach, he still stages one moment of pure terror likely to rattle any viewers afflicted by what we'll call an Edgar Allan Poe complex.
Strangely in the years since making The Double Hour, Cappotondi has confined himself to Italian television although he also directed an episode of the British Inspector Morse spin-off Endeavour. Which says more about the sadly moribund state of the Italian film industry in the early twenty-first century than his impressive talent. A true gem of world cinema, The Double Hour should be essential viewing for those in search of a more offbeat, experimental yet still nuanced and emotional thriller that also doubles as a disarmingly profound meditation on the nature of love.