Charting the last day in the lives of a South Italian family living on a remote farm, The Last To See Them takes a potentially interesting idea and executes it in the most pedestrian way possible. A riff on In Cold Blood without the blood, it never quite settles into an enjoyable rhythm.
The premise — told via text — is made loud and clear: this poor family will be murdered in their sleep. The question this immediately plants in the mind of the viewer is: why? Yet, director Sara Summa is more interesting in the what, meticulously detailing the ongoings of this small family throughout the course of one day. The final result leaves a lot to be desired.
Things happen. The daughter bakes a cake and teases her brother. He works on the car and abuses a cat. Dad does some paperwork and signs off a portion of the farm to a visiting businessman. It’s all rather banal. Only the mother’s life remains a mystery. Suffering from severe depression, she looks resigned to death already, stalking the halls of the house like a ghost. Sometimes we see the same events twice, the second time from the mother’s perspective. At first it seems like the mystery of their murder — hinted at by a score full of ominous low string sounds — might be revealed to us, but this is a fake-out, revealing nothing other than the insignificance of the mother in her own house.
The idea of impeding death can work as a powerful subject matter. One of the most heartbreaking films ever made, Fruitvale Station, took a similar idea — the last day in somebody’s life — and imbued it with acres of pathos. However, we are never made to feel for these characters in the same way. They do have their own unresolved issues — the father is evidently in debt, the daughter has to break up with her boyfriend, and the mother prepares to announce a potentially deadly operation — but all these conflicts are purposefully elided until the next day. Instead of following the standard rule of narrative — conflict followed by resolution — The Last To See Them resembles something like real life, putting things off forever because its easier. Sadly, this doesn’t make for very engaging cinema.
Is it a stark warning to confront one’s own issues before its too late? After all, even if these issues were dealt on that same day, it wouldn’t have stopped their inevitable murder, hinted at by roving shots of a camera stalking down an empty desert highway. Is it all just pointless? It’s hard to say. No real meaning or even poetry is imposed on the viewer here. Perhaps this approach that could work if the surface material was more fascinating or the characters were more animated. Here it simply drags.
Spanning 79 minutes, its slim subject matter is stretched awfully thin. Perhaps as a concise and punchy short, The Last to See Them would have retained the haunting, enigmatic notes it strives for. As a feature, however, it rather worryingly made me empathise more with the killers than the killed.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.