Micaela Ramazzotti and Patrick Bruel star in a seedy story of abuse and surrogacy in Sebastiano Riso’s dramatic second feature.

Putting the mind-boggling moral, ethical and legal issues of baby selling aside, Italian director Sebastiano Riso (Darker than Midnight) creates a memorably unpleasant drama about a weak woman who allows her callous French boyfriend (Patrick Bruel) to cash in on their newborn infants. While the strong subject matter should get the film onto a lot of talk shows in Italy, where all forms of surrogacy are illegal, it also will turn off many viewers not into cinematic socio-pathology.

It’s tough to watch the excellent Micaela Ramazzotti playing Maria, a masochistic doormat that no one, least of all female audiences, can identify with. We meet her, as gaunt and pale as a junkie, riding the Rome subway with Vincent (Bruel), her older French companion. She stares at a pair of 5-year-old twins like an animal who has lost her cubs but senses they’re nearby, and can’t resist following them when they get off.

She has to beg Vincent to forgive her this moment of weakness and take her back to their apartment in the run-down outskirts of the urban fringe, where they make love often.

He belongs to a baby-selling ring together with the crooked gynecologist Dr. Minerva (Fortunato Cerlino) and a sleazy procurer who hunts down buyers. The children on sale are his own. Dressing up poor Maria in red like Marilyn Monroe, he parades her in front of a couple of prospective clients, meanwhile doing his best to get the baby-maker herself pregnant. But she's reached the end of her rope and is passively rebelling. She has an IUD put in by none other than Dr. Minerva, ensuring it will come out in a sickening scene that Riso underlines with a discreet 360 degree pan around the courtyard.

Why doesn’t she just run away? Vincent taunts her that “the door is open.” According to the screenplay, she’s deeply in love with her tormentor, who has her literally eating out of his hand. For his part, Vincent hints at his difficult childhood outside Paris and, though he clearly has feelings for Maria, he has to earn a living, after all. His babies are selling from €50,000. And when he finally gets Maria pregnant again, the price soars to €80,000 because the clients are a gay couple of wealthy theater actors who are dying to have a child.

The ending precipitates into drama, then horror, when the Maria goes into labor alone in the apartment and discovers the door is NOT open – Vincent has locked her inside, while he sets up another innocent, weak-willed girl in suspiciously similar circumstances to Maria’s.

Intensely present and real even in this sordid role, Ramazzotti shows she is growing into one of Italy’s most versatile actresses, particularly in difficult proletarian roles like the one here. She is literally the best thing in this depressing, often shallow film.

Bruel plays well against type, his noble demeanor making him look something like an emotionally wounded action hero. Ennio Fantastichini gives some plausibility to the character of the rich theater actor who wants a baby, but not at all costs.

Production companies: Indiana in association with RAI Cinema, BAC Films, Manny Films
Cast: Micaela Ramazzotti, Patrick Bruel, Pippo Delbono, Fortunato Cerlino, Ennio Fantastichini, Marco Leonardi, Matilda De Angelis, Alessandro Riceci.
Director: Sebastiano Riso
Screenwriters: Andrea Cedrola, Stefano Grasso, Sebastiano Riso
Producers: Fabrizio Donvito, Marco Cohen, Benedetto Habib, Paolo Del Brocco, David Grumbach, Veronique Crasset
Director of photography: Pietro Basso
Production designer: Paola Bizzarri
Costume designer: Johanna Bronner
Editor: Ilaria Fraioli
Music: Michele Braga
World sales: BAC Films
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition)
119 minutes