Heavily influenced by cult surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, not to mention starring the ageing cineaste in a minor role, Ritual - A Psychomagic Story is a new Italian film from the directing duo Giulia Brazzare and Luca Immesi. A psychological film with linear yet abstract plotting, it features the same disregard for narrative conventions as the aforementioned cinema giant, yet none of his creative zeal and infectious passion.
Lia and Viktor have an erotically charged relationship but Lia's guilt over an abortion leads her to depression. As her depression and relationship with Viktor worsen, she leaves for the countryside to visit her aunt Agata in an old house. Agata performs rituals on people to help relieve them of traumas. Lia hopes that she can find respite from her anguish, but the aggressive Viktor is not one to sit on the sidelines.
Ritual begins with a striking opening shot that peers down a long line of marble columns. Lia, dressed in white, walks towards the camera, while Viktor, in black, stalks behind. This composition foreshadows their sado-masochistic relationship while also highlighting Viktor's dark possessiveness over Lia. For the first 30 minutes or so, the couple engages in plenty of carnal action, some of it as rape fantasy, all of it aggressive. Once the abortion element is introduced and sets off Lia's depression, this somewhat intriguing element of the narrative evaporates as we are led off to the countryside.
Throughout, Ritual's cinematography is strong. Starkly composed and static, it amps up the atmosphere of the tense story yet becomes mere window-dressing as the directors can't take full advantage of it. There's also an eerie quality to the film as it decamps to its rural location, but this too is undermined through repetitious plotting that repeatedly drives home some easy-to-follow points.
Given its title and the presence of both Jodorowsky and his book 'The Dance of Reality' on a bookshelf in the rural home, the film presents itself as a work that will explore our imagination and the importance of rituals in shaping it, however, the theme of abortion, which serves as a narrative device to lead us to the rituals of the film's latter half, overwhelm the film. In the end the curious rituals we do see performed in the old house in the countryside appear as merely an afterthought. Meanwhile, abortion is a thorny issue whose representation on screen has led to some memorable moments in cinema featuring disturbing and often grotesque imagery, but, again, its use in Ritual is relatively tame and, as already mentioned, quite repetitive.
Less full-blown characters than representations, Désirée Giorgetti and Ivan Franek are not given much to do in their roles. For the most part, they stare at each other or into space, Girogetti with wide, doey eyes and Franek with his cold, hard stare. Further compounding the problem is lack of on-screen chemistry, which quickly becomes an obstacle. Their relationship is demonstrated as a very shaky one, but it's hard to believe they would ever be together, even if only predominantly as sexual partners.
Another stumbling block in the film is that it is often unclear whether what we are seeing is a dream, a hallucination or actually happening. While this is a style of filmmaking that can work if handled correctly, Brazzare and Immesi don't go deep enough into the abstract and surreal to pull it off. The film is cold and austere rather than bizarre and engaging. You can feel a reticence in the filmmaker's touch, and this lack of courage makes for a frustrating viewing experience.
Handsome, austere and weighty, Ritual plays more like a European arthouse film than a work of surrealist art. Stuck between these two styles of filmmaking which never coalesce into an original or complementary format, it lacks conviction and fails to involve.