Movie Review: Into the Labyrinth
By Matthew Huntley
October 18, 2020
If thrillers are meant to hook and stir the audience through mood, tension, fear and uncertainty, then “Into the Labyrinth” is a legitimate thriller. Its subject matter and plot generate an unrelenting sense of darkness, sadness and consternation, while its imagery, rich and defined, creates an atmosphere that’s both dreadful and beauteous. There’s a lot to take in with this movie—so much, in fact, it was fairly early on that I knew it was one going to be one of those movies you’d have to see at least twice to gain a sense of what’s either real or imaginary. Plus, a second viewing would help you determine whether or not the story cheats and if the multiple twists and turns serve a practical purpose or if the filmmakers merely tossed them in for the sake of having twists and turns.
In regard to the latter, I’m not sure yet, and upon researching the movie and source novel a bit more, I was relieved to find out I wasn’t alone in not completely understanding what happens, especially at the end. What I am sure of is the movie at least got me to want to understand, as well as re-watch it, and that speaks to its quality.
The title could not be more fitting. For one thing, the story features a real labyrinth, which plays a significant role in the plot. On top of that, the title serves as a message to the audience that what we’re about to watch will be complicated and confusing, perhaps even frustrating and deceitful. It’s fairly obvious writer-director Donato Carrisi meant for “Into the Labyrinth” to have at least two meanings, and even though the film, based on Carrisi’s own novel, is ultimately more pulp than high intelligence, it’s still a rousing watch.
Adhering to the classic thriller structure, “Into the Labyrinth,” like many of its kind, begins with an abduction. In this case, it’s that of a 13-year-old girl named Samantha Andretti (Valentina Bellé), who’s pulled into a van on her way to school. Fifteen years go by and an older Sam, pale and bruised, lies under buzzing, fluorescent lights in what looks like a hospital room. She’s hooked up to an IV drip and has a broken leg. In walks Dr. Green (Dustin Hoffman), or a “sort of” doctor, as he tells her—he’s more a profiler who tells Sam she’s safe and has just been rescued after being found on a remote road in the middle of a swamp (the exact time and location of the story are never explicitly revealed, but it’s safe to say it’s somewhere in Italy and there’s an intense heat wave crashing down on the city and countryside).
Green informs Sam that doctors have given her an antidote to a psychotropic drug that was coursing through her system, and he’s here to help her remember how and from where she escaped so the police can find her captor. All the while, Sam remains suspicious and asks, “Is this game?” She believes she’s still trapped in the labyrinth her kidnapper kept her in all these years and this whole setup is just another one of his puzzles. Is Sam delusional? Are remnants of the psychotropic drug still inside her? Or are her instincts the truth?
Cut to a rugged, white-haired man, who narrates in Italian, “Man is the most difficult animal to hunt.” This is Bruno Genko (Toni Servillo), whom the film introduces against an artificial backdrop with tragic orchestral music playing in the background. Genko is a seasoned private investigator who’s earned a living by mostly tracking down men who owe other men money, but he’s also had one missing persons case: Samantha Andretti. Her file sits on his passenger side seat, and even though he sees on the news that Sam has been found and is safe in the hospital, this lonely, chain-smoking PI is determined to bring her kidnapper to justice.
“It’s my job,” he says. “But today is different…today I’m about to die.” Genko has just been told he has a terminal illness, and even though the other, younger detectives see him as somewhat of a laughingstock, Genko is still technically lead investigator on Sam’s case since her parents hired him 15 years ago. It’s just a matter of whether Genko’s skills, health, and tenacity will allow him to find all the answers before his time is up.
“Into the Labyrinth” spends more time with Genko than Green but it essentially intercuts between their parallel stories as these old, stubborn men chase after what’s supposedly the same thing, albeit in different ways. What keeps things interesting is that neither Genko nor Green’s motivations are entirely clear-cut and we’re constantly wondering what’s really driving them. Yes, technically, both want to find and thwart Sam’s abductor before he can strike again, but for Genko and Green, Sam’s case has also become a matter of pride and control, a means for each man to wield his power.
We see this in the way Genko presses and threatens potential leads or anyone he suspects to be involved, not to mention the way he undermines his younger counterparts. Green, meanwhile, practically patronizes Sam and expresses disbelief as she recollects her time in the supposed labyrinth she navigated for 15 years. She recalls her torturous time in the dark, damp, underground layer, which the film shows in flashback, as she was forced to drink toilet water and play sinister games just to take her mind off her unyielding hunger. Green just sits there, squeezing his red stress ball, nodding.
As the film goes back and forth between its two narratives, we’re of course asking whether Genko and Green’s separate investigations will eventually connect. But this isn’t the only question on our minds. We’re also wondering if the disturbing people and places Genko visits will eventually trap him in a labyrinth of his own. Will this tired yet determined PI find absolution before he finds himself too deep in the ominous world of missing persons, particularly missing children? In one scene, he walks into the tall, vast library of the Missing Person Bureau, where thousands of drawers contain evidence of unsolved cases. “On each drawer is the last image before they were taken by the dark,” detective Simon Berish (Vinicio Marchioni) tells him. Can Genko’s frail mind and body handle all this? And what’s the significance of the white rabbit with red, demon-like eyes, or the unicorn with a rainbow mane?
Such varied, specific questions suggest Carrisi’s novel was just as wrought and overstuffed as his screenplay, and you’d think that because it prompts so many more questions than answers, we’d get overwhelmed and bogged down by everything going on and all the people and scenarios to consider.
What’s remarkable about “Into the Labyrinth,” however, is that in spite of its numerous developments, it remains surprisingly coherent and intriguing. The plot, people and atmosphere hold our attention and one of the reasons is that Carrisi’s sheer enthusiasm for his own twisted tale is infectious. He’s clearly in love with his characters, no matter how wounded or reprehensible they may be, and his camera relishes in the dark, unforgiving world they inhabit. It’s not our world mind you, and therefore we can’t call it realistic, but it’s unique and visionary, bold and horrific. It borders on fantasy but we believe it in the context and spirit of the material.
The look of the film is actually one of its strongest assets. The cinematography by Federico Masiero, production design by Tonino Zera, and set decoration by Chiara Balducci deserve special mention. Collectively, they make each scene heavy and striking, with deep hues, twisted structures and weird objects. The movie is a spectacle if nothing else, but somehow Carrisi doesn’t make it ostentatious. He harnesses his resources instead merely showing them off. We know this because the atmosphere put us on edge. We want to run away from the horrid locations but at the same time can’t look away because they’re so fascinating.
Similarly, the characters, though arguably archetypal for the genre, are often repulsive, but nevertheless colorful and complicated. They grow on us, with Genko in particular, as played by Servillo, being a man with whom we come to sympathize. He’s reckless and impulsive but he’s also got a heart and a conscience that make him human. This is my first encounter with Servillo and I can see why he’s been awarded so many times by the Italian film community. From this movie alone, I can tell he has a presence and range that are palpable. The plot gives Genko many unbelievable hurdles to overcome, but Servillo, with his mannerisms, facial gestures and vocal inflections, keeps things grounded. We respond to him and like him. His Genko is one of the reasons we can forgive the story for (probably) having any plot holes.
After taking a few days to digest it all, I’m still not entirely sure about everything that transpires in “Into the Labyrinth,” especially the ending. Perhaps reading the book will shed some light on it. Even so, I’m confident Carrisi wanted his novel and his film adaptation to be about getting to the payoff rather than the payoff itself. So many thrillers seem to prioritize the conclusion above all else to ensure it will be, well, thrilling, and many of them are, but “Into the Labyrinth” works to keep us engaged and tense throughout. Even though it contains a “big reveal” right before the closing credits, it gives us a lot more to experience and remember along the way. This is a movie that feels out of control much of the time, even though the filmmakers make us believe they’re in complete control. That paradox is one of the many reasons it’s so watchable.