Criticising Promised feels a bit like kicking a puppy. It's an obviously low-budget Australian movie by a first-time writer-director that feels like a personal labour of love. It apparentlycomes out of his own experiences growing up in Australia in the 1960s and '70s and it does provide a glimpse into a particular multicultural world and mindset that isn't all that common in Australian films.
But it's foolish to be a partisan cheerleader for mediocre Australian movies, no matter what certain film critics seem to think.
Overpraising - or indeed underpraising - a movie, whatever its source, for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality, simply undermines a critic's credibility. It ensures people who don't share the view that certain film industries should be a kind of sheltered workshop will not trust their judgments in the future. And it doesn't encourage better films - quite the opposite. Filmmakers who obsess about reviews - and show business people are often far too thin-skinned - may become either complacent or discouraged, and neither is desirable.
While Promised - now in general release after being part of the Italian Film Festival - has its good points, it also has many flaws.
The credited writer and director for Promised is first-timer Nick Conidi. But there are also two credited "co-directors" and multiple additional dialogue writers. While this is refreshingly honest - many films, especially from Hollywood, have uncredited writers who may have contributed substantially - it doesn't make for confidence in the filmmaker's talents, or the film itself.
Being a first-timer is not much of an excuse: a number of Australian writer-directors have made notable debuts, including Jocelyn Moorehouse with Proof, Baz Luhrmann with Strictly Ballroom and Fred Schepisi with The Devil's Playground.
The story is set in Melbourne, mostly in the 1950s and then the 1970s, which might explain the prevalence of tight framing in exterior shots of houses, office buildings and other locations, presumably to make sure no anachronistic elements are shown.
Robert (Daniel Berini) and Angela (Antoinette Iesue) were "promised" into marriage by their fathers when he was five and she was a baby. Even in the 1950s, this was still apparently a practice that raised no eyebrows in the Italian-Australian community, and shows it wasn't confined to India as some characters comment.
The two children are friends as they grow up but don't show any romantic attraction or special concern about the arrangement. And their parents' expectations remain dormant.
Two decades later, after Robert has returned from studies in law at Oxford University, however, the pressure begins. Angela's father Sal (Paul Mercurio) and Robert's father Joe (Mirko Grillini) both expect the two to marry, and soon, but times have changed and they've been apart for years.
Robert seems willing to go along with his father's wishes - he's been set up in a small law practice and bought a house for married life by his family - but Angela is less keen. She is now an aspiring writer and a modern rather than "traditional" woman and also has a secret: she's in a relationship with another man, Tom (Santo Tripodi). It's a delicate situation, made more complicated by the fact that Joe has connections to organised crime and Sal has reason to feel obliged to him. How will all this be resolved?
One of the good things about the movie is its depiction of Italian-Australian life. The relationships among family and the various "roles" of its members generally have a feeling of authenticity.
Tina Arena does well as Angela's mother, caught between her husband and her daughter's wishes, and also sings Schubert's Ave Maria over the opening and closing credits.
The machinations of the plot and chunks of the dialogue feel a bit clunky, though, particularly in the film's latter half.
The machinations of the plot and chunks of the dialogue feel a bit clunky, though, particularly in the film's latter half, and the film occasionally teeters on the brink of melodrama.
On a technical level, the film features OK if unexceptional cinematography and some of the worst sound I've heard in a film, particularly a recent one - there's intermittent humming on the often murky soundtrack, which also audibly shifts in levels on occasion (multiple sound companies in different countries are credited).
There are a few visual flourishes - jump cuts, match cuts, dialogue being "answered" after a quick cut to the next shot - but these are more often distracting than impressive.
They seem more suited to a romantic comedy, when the rest of the film is quite naturalistic and serious.
Indeed, tone is a problem throughout. The film often comes off as lugubrious, when a lighter touch might have helped and the story occasionally teeters on the brink of melodrama.
The characters and situations seem a bit underdeveloped and although the leads are appealing, they're let down by the material.
Here's hoping that Conidi learns by doing and that his next film is technically superior and with more adroit scripting and directing.