In spite of limited screen time, there’s never a question why the titular dog “Marcel!” has top billing in Jasmine Trinca’s directorial debut, much to the chagrin of a young girl (Maayane Conti) who has to fight with the floppy-haired mutt for the love and attention of her mother (Alba Rohrwacher). While one would think the unnamed heroine would have an advantage by blood, Marcel shares an arguably more intimate connection as one-half of the mother’s pantomime performance art pieces, which earns the family their coin with no patriarch around to help and when the mother is prioritizes being an artist above all else, her collaborator comes before her daughter.
The darkly amusing premise gives way to an inspired look at tempestuous family affairs and if the dynamic between mother and daughter seems unnatural, Trinca is canny to place it in slightly surreal circumstances that could be interpreted as a middle ground between the mother’s fantastical view of the world and the daughter’s eye for its cold realities. Opening with the striking image of the daughter playing the piano on a swing, with her feet dangling to reach the reach the keys one movement at at time, the film imagines a home for the two where there is little warmth, but boundless creativity as various eccentricities come to the fore and colors pop, often from the shadows. With her bed just beneath a photo of her father, whose cool gaze would seem impossible to live up to even if her grandmother (Giovanna Ralli, doing her best present-day Sophia Loren) weren’t always going on about him, the daughter can’t rarely get a good night’s sleep as she hardly finds comfort after her mother returns home from a day of performing on the streets, still doting on Marcel off the clock.
An opportunity to flip the script arrives when Marcel unexpectedly runs off following a performance and suddenly, the mother has no one else to turn to but her daughter for help, though even then the canine is still at the front of her mind. Surely drawing on a long career in front of the cameras herself that memorably began in Nanni Moretti’s “The Son’s Room,” Trinca couldn’t have put together a better showcase for her two leads after previously pairing Rohrawcher and Conti as a mother and daughter in a more grounded short “Being My Mom.” It is hard to look away from either one who rarely need words to express themselves, with Rohrwacher, who only needs to narrow her eyes for someone to wither in her presence or widen them to make them feel bathed in love, both ideal as a passionate entertainer and indifferent mother and Conti somehow appearing wiser than all those around her after being kept at a distance to observe yet still looking lost when even a little love would go a long way.
A search for Marcel leads to occasionally sketchy territory, both for the characters and the film itself when some sequences, such as a visit to a gauche cousin living in the lap of luxury, feel more unfocused than additive to the unusual environment that Trinca creates, but it’s a small price to pay for the big swings that the director takes and connects with, such as a running thread of the daughter’s gradual education in the saxophone, eventually playing well enough to accompany her mother. Given the mother’s occupation, it becomes hard to tell if it’s all an act when performing together for the first time to make an extra bit of scratch and whether it’s the audience or her daughter that she’s dancing for, with the director’s recognition that it can’t be both and any artifice that’s been put up falls away to reveal a mix of joy and sadness that’s unmistakably true to life.