[Incompresa has been titled Misunderstood in the U.S. For the purposes of this review I will be referring to it by its original title.]
In 1993 Hole’s Courtney Love was asked about the differences between their then-impending masterpiece Live Through This and their prior album, the cathartic but formally messy Pretty on the Inside. She replied, “it’s leaps and bounds different. It’s so different there should have been an album in between.” The same sentiment could be used to describe the vast gulf between writer/director Asia Argento’s last feature film, the undeniably visceral The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, and her new work Incompresa, which carries a sustained and palpable ache that could only be achieved by someone working at the top of their craft.
That shared DNA with Live Through This doesn’t end there, as Incompresa also provides the singularly indelible experience of walking a mile in someone else’s disintegrating shoes. But that’s only a gateway comparison, this film is its own beast entirely. Incompresa captures a year or so in the life of Aria (rendered in a holy-shit star making performance from newcomer Giulia Salerno), a nine-year-old girl caught up in a riptide of indifference after the less than amicable split between her libertine mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg), on fire as usual) and movie-star father (a hilariously vain Gabriel Garko). Aria spends much of the film bouncing around between these two divided houses, and each time she arrives seeking solace the rug is pulled out from under her by her parents’ narcissistic whims.
Home isn’t the only place where Aria is unable to gain purchase. She’s ostracized at school, her classmates seemingly unnerved by her need to belong. She does have a best friend (Carolina Poccioni), but allegiances can be fickle as young people clumsily navigate their social terrain. If all of this sounds rather small, the specificity and accuracy with which Argento and her co-writer Barbara Alberti paint this world makes everything feel appropriately huge. When you’re nine every positive development is a victory and every setback or slight is a cataclysmic event, something Incompresa relays without at all minimizing it. Rather, there’s a huge degree of empathy here and, even as Aria delves into murky mean girl waters, we have a precise understanding of the mechanics that fuel those impulses.
It can be hard to separate the art from the artist here, and much of the film echoes Argento’s personal experiences – not that she’s trying to hide this, the lead character’s name is one letter removed from her own – but Incompresa never feels self indulgent. A lot of modern indies are content to be flatly photographed and ironically distant, but Argento’s work here is impressively cinematic – it wants to break through to you. This isn’t a film made solely for the purpose of gazing inward, it’s about reaching out.
Argento seems to have long-overcome whatever wounds she may share with her protagonist, but it feels like she wants the other young people of the world to perhaps have it a little bit easier than she did. To this end, Incompresa is a powerful love letter to everyone who has ever felt marginalized and a life raft to anyone currently in those waters. Seek it out when you can.