A Broken Sisterhood

Giada Colagrande explores rough terrain, but leaves precious few clues to follow her

“Open My Heart” opens with two sisters—the 17-year-old Caterina (Giada Colagrande, who also directs) and her older sibling Maria (Natalie Cristiani)—sharing a bed. Yet what might pass as sisterly affection is soon revealed to be more intimate than one might expect or even appreciate. It is not long before Maria is seen naked writhing in ecstasy as Caterina pleasures her sexually. Curiously, this lesbian incest scene is not the most shocking development in this bold DV film directed by Colagrande in a cool, minimalist style.

While the story takes a long time to get to some of its more interesting plot developments—few of which should be revealed—it can be said that however chilling the actions perpetrated in “Open My Heart,” their impact is unfortunately diluted. Colagrande has created an unusual character study, but she seems intent on keeping viewers detached from the fierce power struggle between the enigmatic Maria and the passive Caterina.

The film’s first act, as it were, establishes the relationship between the motherless sisters. Caterina is a shy teenager who studies at home, leaving the apartment only to attend a ballet class. In the afternoons, Maria earns money as a prostitute, and a parade of johns passes through the apartment, interrupting Caterina’s studies, especially with the noise they make on the squeaky bed. While Maria goes out in the evenings, Caterina is never allowed to leave, but this arrangement does not seem to trouble the younger sister.

The dynamic between the siblings soon changes when Caterina is hit on by Giovanni (Claudio Botosso), the janitor at her ballet school. Initially wary of this older man, Caterina later becomes determined to seduce him when he becomes a client of Maria’s, performing a dance routine that looks like something done in a strip club. Is it jealousy or lust that drives Caterina to Giovanni? At first it is unclear, but on his next visit, Maria invites Giovanni to have sex with Caterina. This sets in motion a chain of events that have serious repercussions for all.

“Open My Heart” generates most of its tension during its second act when Caterina and Giovanni hide their ongoing relationship from Maria. The prurient nature of the older man/younger girl affair is nearly as taboo as the erotic love shared between the two sisters, but perhaps the film’s greatest mystery is determining just who is taking advantage of whom. All three characters are, Colagrande suggests, equally guilty.

Alas, while the actress-director may be shrewd in posing such questions, she only offers hints about why Caterina and Maria are the way they are. Much of the characters’ behavior is disturbing, but never explicated in a satisfying fashion. Viewers might be taken aback by the sisters’ inappropriate relationship—especially in the last act when things get really sinister—but the film’s overly cool tone prevents any serious emotional involvement by the audience.

Colagrande teases, having Caterina, early on, say, “The soul is not imprisoned by the body, but the body is imprisoned by the soul.” Unfortunately, a repetitive sequence of events reinforcing this same theme does little to expand upon it; instead, a few cutaway shots to religious artwork merely suggest a seriousness of purpose.

The performances are equally inscrutable. Both Colagrande and Natalie Cristiani—well matched as sisters—are experts at showing little emotion and few expressions, and this certainly enhances their characterizations, but it also keeps their characters unduly remote. Caludio Botosso is suitably smarmy as the older suitor Giovanni, even if he is able to lend some erotic charge to his threesome with the sisters.

“Open My Heart” is intriguing because Colagrande does not shy away from presenting unusual characters and uncomfortable situations. If only she had made them more engaging and dared to give them more meaning.

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