I haven’t read the best-selling Dutch novel on which the Italian drama The Dinner is based, and I disliked the film so much that I don’t intend to read the book anytime soon. Scripted by Valentina Ferlan and director Ivano De Matteo, the movie trades in moral simplifications and heavy-handed arguments, dressing them up with posh architecture, sensitive acting, and swooping camera movements to pass them off as sophisticated. Philosophically inclined yet lazy in its storytelling, it’s reminiscent of such lesser Woody Allen dramas as Melinda and Melinda and Cassandra’s Dream. I would hope that novelist Herman Koch explored the themes of violence and moral reckoning with greater finesse.
The Dinner opens with a shocking sequence that promises a more intense movie than the one that follows. A driver stopped at a red light in Rome gets into an argument with the man parked next to him, who’s talking loudly on his cell phone. The conflict escalates until the first man leaves his car with a heavy object, preparing to beat the other; the second man then pulls out a gun, killing the stranger and injuring the man’s son. What does it take to push a person to his breaking point? Ferlan and De Matteo ask us. Also: Who, if anyone, is right in such a needless conflict? This sets the stage, all too blatantly, for the moral drama to unfold.
The main characters of The Dinner turn out to be a surgeon who operates on the injured boy and a lawyer who defends the shooter in court. This doctor and lawyer are brothers, the former a cuddly humanist and the latter a greedy cynic. When the two discover their mutual connection to the shooting, they fight over the lawyer’s decision to represent the killer, nearly bringing their relationship to end. The brothers are forced to spend more time together, though, when the doctor’s wife discovers a video that shows her teenage son and the lawyer’s teenage daughter beating a homeless woman nearly to death.
The filmmakers hold us in suspense as to how each main character will respond. Will the doctor, who claims that his belief in moral accountability is absolute, encourage the kids to turn themselves in, or will he ask his brother to use his legal connections to get them off the hook? This is all potentially compelling, except that Ferlan and De Matteo characterize their protagonists in such basic terms (and De Matteo maintains such a ridiculously genteel tone) that the movie feels less like a drama than like a hypothetical moral dilemma that friends might hash out around the dinner table—perhaps that’s what the title refers to. v