Quo Vadis, Baby?
2005Director: Gabriele Salvatores
Cast: Angela Baraldi, Gigio Alberti, Claudia Zanella, Andrea Renzi
he existential detective film is about traces, ghosts, emotional threads winding through time. Quo Vadis, Baby? is a compelling addition to the detective genre, less concerned with the often messy and contingent narrative than the metaphysical role of the modern PI drawn into her own history.
Set in the suitably labyrinthine city of Bologna, Giorgia Cantini (played by singer-turned-actress Baraldi) is a weary PI who stumbles across a video diary made by her sister, who killed herself 16 years earlier. Cantini becomes entranced with the tapes, recognizing sinister possibilities surrounding her sister’s death. But as the movie makes clear from the beginning, the private detective’s quest is never for an answer—it’s for the truth. And when searching for truth in death, invariably they come up short. Stepping out of the tedious world of divorce writs, adultery, and surveillance, the PI, already morally adrift due to the voyeuristic nature of the profession, becomes exiled from the normal order of things. Salvatores depicts this classic noir character on the brink of revelation well, probing at the stitching of the social fabric.
Cantini’s name is well-chosen: it translates as “wine cellar,” a dark, mature space of celebration and death. Baraldi plays the detective with a cool detachment and a loose, vulnerable wit. Rather like Moseby in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, Cantini is confronted, most of all, by the unsolvable problem of her own destructive personality. Such detectives push hopelessly onwards towards some ultimate last clue, sometimes forcing the pieces of the puzzle to fit, to satisfy morbid personal motives (i.e. the hell-bent Mike Hammer of Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and more recently Brendan, of Rian Johnson’s Brick). Cantini is no different, even if the cinematically aware facades that obscure her character make her a little harder to pin down.
Visually, the film is a shady half-world. Italo Petriccione’s camera, like Cantini, is cursed with a reluctant desperation to shed light on the situation. It isn’t helped by the faltering of the plot, which is unable to sustain the pace or punctuation of a thriller. Instead, Salvatores allows the ponderous nature of the story to dictate the rhythm, sometimes to the detriment of genuine enthrallment.
But rather like Robert Benton’s The Late Show, the seemingly unglamorous world of the private detective becomes alluring nonetheless. In these films, the PI holds a certain disdain for the regularity of day-to-day living, often both the root of their cynicism and their professional inspiration. Art Carney plays the PI in Benton’s film like a redundant Knight of the realm, no doubt an addendum to Chandler’s Marlowe/Mallory dichotomy. Baraldi approaches the role in much the same way, protecting herself with a severe personal code—a telling feature of the true outsider who faces life at a different angle. It’s smart to center the film around a female detective, as the sexual politics and fictional lineage of the Knight/Cowboy/PI sits uneasily but intriguingly on female shoulders.
The film is unsatisfying to a degree, if you are looking for a resolution as signed, sealed, and delivered as The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye. Salvatores is far too obsessed with characterisation to tie up all the loose ends. Perhaps this is a fairer reflection of “the way things are,” and it certainly embodies the noncommittal shrug of Cantini’s character. Sometimes though, it feels like the demands of the genre are a little too much for the director. We are treated to an ending almost as intriguing as Haneke’s Hidden: a final, illuminating video diary unseen by Cantini, for our eyes only. Salvatores ultimately extracts the detective from the case, and the final revelation is ours. This would be an interesting evolution of the private detective movie, the mystery remaining not only unsolved, but undiscovered. It would be a pity if this film were to suffer such a fate.
Quo Vadis, Baby? is now open in limited release in England.