The Solitude of Prime Numbers
(La solitudine dei numeri primi)
Saverio Costanzo's ambitious feature adaptation of The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a visual masterpiece that nonetheless fails to deliver the emotional power of Paolo Giordano's bestselling novel.
Giordano, a professional physicist, exploded onto the bestseller lists in his native Italy and much of Europe with his debut novel in 2008. The Solitude of Prime Numbers won Italy's prestigious Primio Strega literary award and went on to sell over 1.2 million copies in the first year of publication. I read it for the first time just a few months ago, and like many before me, fell completely under its spell.
It is the story of Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) and Mattia (Luca Marinelli), two lonely souls who meet for the first time as teenagers following separate childhood traumas that left them both scarred for life. Although they are capable of understanding each other as no one else can, they are unable to achieve true intimacy as the years unfold.
In taking on this project, Costanzo was faced with the daunting challenge of achieving the visual interpretation of a novel in which the narrative takes place largely within the inner thoughts of its characters. Screenwriters and directors have struggled with that problem for decades and most fail. It is not an impossible task, but it does require a tremendous amount of creative thinking outside the box. Beginners, currently out in theaters, is an example of a film in which the writer-director achieves success using unconventional means to bring the audience into the heart and mind of an introverted protagonist.
The use of external conflict to elicit action from the characters is the method most commonly used by filmmakers, and this is the crutch Costanzo falls back upon. Unfortunately this resulted in taking scenes of interpersonal conflict from the novel and blowing them up into something disproportionately larger on the screen. For example, Alice's teenage troubles with the bully, Viola, occupy much more time in the film version than they did in the novel. The dialogue I quote below takes place entirely in Mattia's mind in the novel, but strangely, in the film it is the adult Viola who speaks those words at her wedding. That one left me scratching my head.
I felt that many of Costanzo's choices were misleading, especially the somewhat ambiguous ending, the interpretation of which may be very different among audience members who have not read the novel.
Despite the failings of the script, Costanzo's talents as a director are very much in evidence. His visual style, with its emphasis on intimate close-ups and attention to the small, nuanced details of individual characters, is uniquely suited to the visual telling of a character-driven story. Even with a relatively weak script, he still manages to elicit empathy for the characters. We feel their pain, even if we don't entirely understand it.
In terms of story, not all of Costanzo's choices were wrong. The conflict between Mattia and his mother, played with tremendous power by veteran actress, Isabella Rossellini, is much stronger in the movie than in the novel, but it plays well. Against the character of the mother, Costanzo is able to interpret Mattia much more effectively on the screen.
Luca Marinelli, Alba Rohrwacher & Isabella Rossellini
Prior to the Solitude of Prime Numbers, Costanzo was primarily a documentarian. His incredible visual style makes me wonder what he will be able to achieve if he is given a truly great script to work from.
I was fortunate to meet Giordano during a visit to Los Angeles to promote his novel. Although he pointedly refused to criticize Costanzo's film, he did indicate that he felt it was "the filmmaker's own interpretation." He went on to say that he had visualized something more along the lines of Lost in Translation, another story about two complementary characters that can never really come together--one that was considerably less heavy than Costanzo's film, but very humanistic and entertaining in its depiction of flawed but empathetic characters forced into a world that is not their own.
Normally I lament when Hollywood remakes a foreign film that was a masterpiece coming from its native land. However, in this case I find myself longing for an American remake that will more effectively capture the power and spirit of the source novel. After all, what is more timely for an American audience than a story about two people who will be forever scarred by parental expectation pushed too far?
Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. Sometimes he thought that they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they'd been trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace. Other times he suspected that they too would have preferred to be like all the others, just ordinary numbers, but for some reason couldn't do it. This second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving of images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.
Paolo Giordano, The Solitude of Prime Numbers