Film Review: Promised (2019)

Intent and effort count for a lot but, unfortunately for Promised, it can’t make up for the numerous flaws that reduce this Melbourne production to a rookie-like level that doesn’t do justice to the skills of those involved.

Taking inspiration from his 70s childhood in Melbourne, writer and co-director Nick Condi tells the story of two Italian families who promise their children to one another in the 1950s. Twenty years later, when Rob (Daniel Berini) returns from studying in Oxford, he and Angela (Antoinette Iesue) must deal with the consequences of their fathers’ agreement. While Rob surrenders to his controlling, connected father Sal (Paul Mercurio), who’s steered the direction of his life since birth, Angela fights to stay with her boyfriend Tom (Santo Tripodi) and throw off the outdated shackles of an arranged marriage.

Like we’ve seen for decades in American cinema, there’s so much potential in the immigrant experience, so many powerful threads to be pulled on and woven together. For one, the tensions between generations, between traditions and changing times, between the old country and the new. Instead, Promised barely scratches the surface, ending up with overwrought, wooden melodrama, plot points that drift in from nowhere, bemusing “secrets”, and rushed, redundant twists. The performances have a false feel, with stilted dialogue doing nothing to help the actors. The editing is all over the place, with shot reverse shots that cut too quickly between characters, giving no time for the reactions to breathe. It’s an issue that’s mirrored in the flow between scenes. Some materialise then disappear before you can figure out their place in the story, while others drag on for ages with no clear reason as to why.

The film has nice period styling, but it has no style. It only has a couple of interesting, different shots during a wedding scene, but otherwise doesn’t switch up the shot choices and doesn’t know what and when to hold and let go. There’s a nice shot of the two leads in the back seat of a car that echoes the closing scene of The Graduate; this is a real chance to just hold there and watch the actors, watch the realisations of what they’ve done dawn on the characters, but instead it just cuts away. It’s like it doesn’t trust that its scenes are strong enough to stand on their own; it just keeps moving forward from scene to scene, but without real narrative momentum or a pull to the audience. It doesn’t trust its storytelling or scene-setting ability, shown by the numerous repeated exterior establishing shots of Melbourne’s arched and balustraded, semi-detached and white-picketed suburban homes that haven’t changed since the 70s, like something you’d expect to see after a commercial break in a sitcom.

The TV feel is heightened by the film’s strange sound design, or lack thereof; it’s all over the place. Some scenes are unnaturally silent, the mid-dialogue punctuated by the sounds of the actors moving around. Other times the music almost drowns out what could be a potentially powerful performance. There seems to be no rhyme or reason why some scenes have music and others don’t. Sometimes the music comes and goes in 30 seconds, adding nothing to the experience except confusion.

There’s something buried in there though. An intimate, two shot dinner scene between Rob and Angela in a dimly lit pizza restaurant suggests a growing chemistry between the pair. It’s given time to play out more naturally that any other around it and puts you more inside their relationship than anything else. More of this and there could have been an intimate portrait of dealing with family expectation, of living with tradition, and of what marriage and love can be.

Promised is in cinemas from 24th October through Umbrella Entertainment.

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