A tender, if rather sober, prison drama backed by a strong ensemble cast, The Inner Cage (Ariaferma) represents a modest step up for Italian filmmaker Leonardo Di Costanzo after his last feature, The Intruder, which played in the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.
Starring Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty) as a kindhearted, no-nonsense guard presiding over a dozen inmates left behind in a remote correctional facility on the verge of shutting down, the movie has all the ingredients for a cutthroat escape thriller, with plenty of occasions for the prisoners to make their big break. Instead, Di Costanzo’s third feature veers in a more restrained direction, chronicling the thorny relationships among a bunch of men trapped behind bars, or just outside them, as if they were all stranded together on a desert island.
The Inner Cage
Touching and well-observed, if too contained.
The fact that The Inner Cage never quite hits the suspense levels one anticipates, keeping the tension at a long, slow burn throughout, may make it a tough sell abroad after its out-of-competition premiere in Venice. But this is still earnest, compassionate filmmaking that tries to cut past clichés and show how even the worst criminals have a heart — and, because this is Italy, how they can also cook up a solid batch of meatballs and marinara sauce.
Servillo plays Gaetano, the captain of a half-dozen or so correctional officers guarding the fictional Mortana prison, which has been more or less abandoned save for a group of inmates stuck waiting for a transfer that never seems to come. The raggedy crew of jailbirds is headed by their self-appointed boss, Carmine Lagioia (Silvio Orlando, The Caiman), a nefarious mobster who’s been locked up for a long time and holds plenty of sway with his fellow prisoners, including the loud-mouthed Cacace (Salvatore Striano) and the quiet young newcomer Fantaccini (Pietro Giuliano).
The script, co-written by Di Costanzo, Bruno Oliviero and Valia Santella, sets up what seems to be, at least for half the running time, a situation where Lagioia may very likely outsmart Gaetano and find a way to sneak out, even if his sentence is almost up. Several red herrings are tossed our way, especially after the inmates protest the poor quality of the food and the guard allows the aging capo to prepare collective meals for everyone, granting him access to the kitchen and its sharp cutlery. Later on, when a storm knocks the power out, it looks like we’re headed into Shawshank Redemption territory — but no, not at all.
More interested in how penal institutions weigh heavily on the people inside them, whether they’re serving out long terms or employed by Italy’s jumbled bureaucracy of a prison system, The Inner Cage reveals Di Costanzo’s roots as a documentary filmmaker who chronicled Neapolitan life in works like Cadenza D’Inganno (2011) and At School (2003). His approach here is closer to that of a solemn character study than to a full-fledged drama, with Gaetano and Lagioia taking center stage as two men past their prime who find out they may have more in common than imagined, even if they hardly say a word to each other.
Indeed, there’s so much restraint in Di Costanzo’s direction that the film never quite hits the pulse level you’d expect from its powerful setting, while plotlines involving some of the other characters — especially a few inmates of Muslim origin — feel underused. But it’s also a nice change to see a prison movie that doesn’t resort to the usual bouts of extreme violence or chaos, depicting a milieu that’s both more contained and more real, with a solemn tone marked by the plodding, daily grind of being in a place with nothing much to do.
Seasoned pros Servillo and Orlando convey a lot with very little — mostly just by exchanging glances, as if both their characters understand there’s no point in getting worked up over lives that are already, for the most part, over. There’s a particularly touching scene between the two of them when they head outside the penitentiary walls to pick vegetables for that night’s meal, as if they were two humble retirees from the same Italian village spending a quiet moment together in the sun. Newcomer Giuliano is also touching, if a tad mute, as a freshly arrived convict on whom the others take pity when the minor crime he committed tragically turns major.
Shot by Sorrentino’s regular cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, in stark colors illuminated with lots of top-light, the craft level here is above that of Di Costanzo’s other two features, which had more of a handheld naturalistic look. This especially goes for the decor: a massive, highly photogenic prison whose labyrinthine design recalls the drawings of Italian artist Giovanni Piranesi. At one point, the director has the camera slowly glide past a row of deserted cells, some of them filled with eerie signs — an empty chessboard, a dirty, turned-over bed — of the people who once lived there, and it reminds us how, for so many men over so many years, such a dank, forgotten place was what they called home.