When it first premiered as the opening film of 2020’s Venice Film Festival, The Ties was hailed by a lot of outlets as ‘the Italian Marriage Story’ and, though you can see why the comparison was made on the surface, dig a little deeper into The Ties and it’s a classification that does a disservice to both films. With a sweeping scope and deadly serious tone, The Ties is almost a romantic epic, but this impressive scale comes at the cost of the pace and wit of Marriage Story, making for a more studious but less entertaining offering.
Adapting Domenico Starnone’s novel, writer-director Daniele Luccheti jumps back and forth through time as the long-term effects of a patriarch’s affair slowly but surely turn a family inside out. We open in ‘80s Naples as Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio), a minor local radio celebrity and father of two young kids, tells his wife Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher) that he has started sleeping with a younger woman, his co-worker Lidia (Linda Caridi). From the off, Aldo is self-obsessed and cowardly, but Luccheti plays with our sympathies as we see Vanda unravel through the eyes of the kids, Anna and Sandro. Her rage and hatred is fully justified, but there are a lot of very distressing scenes in which she snaps in front of the kids, leaving them lonely and terrified, Vanda refusing to acknowledge anyone’s unhappiness other than her own.
Rohrwacher gives a typically excellent performance, and Lo Cascio is impressive too, in a hangdog way, though Aldo does become far more interesting in the hands of Silvio Orlando, who plays him as an older man in the flash forwards to the present day. The toxic strength of these performances is both the greatest strength and weakness of The Ties, the actors breathing a deeply human life into their characters, but also becoming so effectively unlikeable that climactic moments don’t land as well as they should because it’s so hard to care what happens to this family.
There are some genuinely joyous moments, though, in the rather overstretched final act, as the adult Anna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Sandro (Adriano Giannini) reunite, bonding again over their shared hatred of their parents. Mezzogiorno and Giannini’s easygoing chemistry really draws you into their sibling bond, efficiently filling in the gaps left by the story’s time jumps, which are skilfully handled, throwing you off balance without making anything confusing.
You do wish you could spend more time with them than their parents, who eventually just become insufferable, wallowing in their misery and dragging everyone else down with them. Vanda and Aldo are, for the most part, an uncomplicatedly dreadful couple who make for even worse parents, which initially makes for effectively distressing viewing but then wears thin. Though it doesn’t have the emotional wallop you’d like it to, The Ties’s novelistic ambition and moral ambiguities still make for an intermittently gripping slice of familial drama.