The first shot of writer-director Andrea Pallaoro’s “Monica” shows the eponymous heroine (Trace Lysette) in what looks like a tanning bed as the New Order song “Bizarre Love Triangle” plays on the soundtrack. The aspect ratio this movie is shot in is unusually narrow, and this aids the sense that Lysette’s Monica feels both isolated and trapped.
Pallaoro is Italian, and so as we watch Lysette’s Monica in long scenes where she is stuck in compositions behind doors and windows as she makes calls to people who seem to have abandoned her, it feels like Pallaoro is riffing on the movies that Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni made in the 1960s with Monica Vitti, especially “L’Eclisse.”
There are times in this early section of “Monica” where the framing can be a little much, particularly when we see Monica behind a door frame with a window that looks like a cross. We see Monica driving, and she stops at a motel; late at night, she goes outside and sees a wolf, and the wolf seems to look back at her, and this is all very Antonioni-Vitti-ish.
Monica drives on and eventually stops at the home of her dying mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), who has a brain tumor, speaks in a low, hushed voice, and doesn’t recognize Monica. Pallaoro makes large demands on Clarkson almost right away with a scene where Eugenia cries out in the night for her own mother, but he helps Clarkson by keeping her at a distance and in shadows. The chief virtue of “Monica” is its restraint and its patience.
Eugenia speaks to her son Paul (Joshua Close) normally; she recognizes him, and when Paul says he loves her, Eugenia says, “I love you more” very intensely. So it’s not that the brain tumor has destroyed her memory. It only becomes clear about halfway through “Monica” why Eugenia doesn’t recognize her other child: Monica is transgender and was kicked out of the house as a teenager.
Pallaoro keeps his camera on Lysette’s face for long periods as she listens to others, and this gets across just how alienated she feels. We see Monica going to a bar to meet up with a guy, and when he stands her up, Monica calls him on her phone and leaves a furious message before calling back and trying to be conciliatory, but then she calls back again to yell at him some more.
Toward the end of this movie, Monica and Paul discuss what happened when she got kicked out of the house, and Monica remembers Eugenia saying, “I can no longer be your mother.” We have seen and heard enough of Eugenia to know that manners and propriety are of the utmost importance to her; when Monica enters a room unannounced, Eugenia scolds her and informs her how you are supposed to behave as a guest in someone else’s house.
Pallaoro and co-writer Orlando Tirado give us only bits and pieces of the backstories of the characters, and that works out fine because their present distress is more interesting and more dramatic than what happened to them in the past. Pallaoro trusts that we can read between the lines and that Lysette can carry many silent scenes where Monica is existing in closed spaces and trying to find some kind of peace.
The somewhat cryptic tone of “Monica” finally pays off in a beautifully judged and handled scene between Clarkson and Lysette that plays in close-ups on their faces and without any words. Monica looks her mother in the eyes and then looks down shyly and self-protectively. Eugenia’s face fills with love that might be general or might be specific; this moment is so touching because Pallaoro and his actors have reached a higher plane here where plot and even character fall away.
This is a real tearjerker of a scene, and it doesn’t last long, but it shows the value of restraint when it comes to the biggest subjects. At its best, “Monica” shows that the most important moments in life, and particularly in family life, don’t need words.
“Monica” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.