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Desensitized to Seeing Death in Movies? Watch 'Miele'

Honey likes to give her clients every chance to change their minds. It has to be their decision. She prefers that they have someone close to them present for the event itself, though that observer is to follow instructions closely and not touch anything. Honey is usually there herself, in an adjoining room, not simply to be careful but also to make sure that the patient’s choice of music is being played. She is one of those young people with faith in music. As for herself, she wears white rubber gloves, soft and fine, of the sort favored by medical operatives. It takes just a few minutes. Only after the event does she put the envelope of bank notes in her bag. She has been doing this for a few years.

One of her clients is Grimaldi, a man lost in his sixties. He says that since he lives on the fifth floor he could just as well throw himself out of the window, but that would be a fuss, and it would inconvenience others. Grimaldi smokes all the time and he has a deep, hacking cough. Honey doesn’t ask, but it’s easy to believe he has lung cancer. It would seem to be a hopeless case, but Grimaldi is not the usual sort of client. He develops an interest in talking to her and wondering why she does this grim job; he is attracted yet mocking. He is just what she needs to question her occupation. But he has paid her, and he has the medicine. It’s just that he seems prepared to take his time about using it. Suddenly he has an interest in life: it’s her.

Honey is flustered by this delay, and so she cannot help but start to talk to him. She thought he was serious about suicide, but she has to learn that there are more important things than being earnest. Her real name is Irene, but for the purposes of this job, she calls herself Honey. She is dark, slender, around thirty but acting younger. She says that she is studying for an advanced degree and talks to a casual boyfriend about her Chinese roommate. Most of this—apart from having sex with the boyfriend—may be a masquerade, a way of concealing the real thing, in which she flies from Rome to Los Angeles, takes a tourist bus trip into Mexico, and in Tijuana purchases a poison used for killing dogs. She gets the dosage for big dogs. And then she flies back to wherever one of her clients clings to life. She assists him in suicide, and takes a swim in the cold Mediterranean afterward.

Illustration by Jack Hughes

It is up to us to decide what we think about Honey; more important, it is up to Irene. There is no such thing in Honey as a carefully worked out defense of assisted suicide, or a searching examination of what the Italian law feels about it. We have to look at the evidence of the situations Honey faces. So we see people in pain and distress—nothing gruesome or unduly vivid—but situations in which a person might reasonably decide to arrange an exit. And we look at the dark eyes of Irene, watching her clients and contemplating her own process. Once the film reaches Los Angeles, it occurred to me that an American movie based on this situation would have provoked agonized and tedious debates over the legality and the morality of it all. The lightness of Valeria Golino’s Honey is its studying the process in a clipped, elliptical way, confident that we have picked up what is going on, and sure that we will find all the mystery, all the truth, in the beautiful but hawklike face of Irene, or the actress Jasmine Trinca.

Why does she do it? It is a service to others; it has an element of risk or danger, since it is illegal; it pays quite well; and it brings Irene face to face with what you’d have to call significance. That really is the point of Grimaldi. He would seem to be a smart, rather cynical roué and a tease, with an old face, etched in smoke and disbelief. The actor is Carlo Cecchi, though I was reminded of the painter Lucian Freud at the same age—sensual but unsentimental, relentless, and so penetrating as to be scary, but with his whole being set on painting the person he is looking at. It’s up to those who will look at the painting to determine whether this effort is kind or unkind, rape or rescue.

I won’t say what happens with Grimaldi. You will have your own ideas already, but then you will be surprised and touched by the story’s conclusion, and you may feel that the very end of Honey is soft and evasive and too simple-minded for this absorbing project. Honey comes from a novel by Mauro Covacich, and it is the first film directed by Valeria Golino. She has been an actress for more than twenty-five years, and she may still be best known as the young woman with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain ManHoney was very well received at Cannes in 2013, and now it comes to this country for a limited range of screenings. Seek it out.

It is not without flaws. Yet it does not revel in violence, the strain and distress of being close to death, or Irene’s sex life. There are a few moments where it slips close to the mannered spatial arrangements of an Antonioni film, without possessing the authority or assurance that could maintain a gaze like his through the whole of a film. But this is a brilliant and original picture that leads us straight and deep into the very issues that it declines to address directly. They arise naturally in the film’s structure and its urge to eliminate the most obvious and ponderous linking scenes of explanation. This means that we have to watch Jasmine Trinca as closely as we might in life. You can hardly ask for more in a picture that has so fresh and daring an eye on death.

My point about the gap between this film and what would have happened to it in American hands is worth pursuing. If this subject were made here, it would suffer under the swaggering irony of being another film about a hired killer, a genre so concrete that our dependence on murder for amusement might have lost sight of the real complexity behind taking a life. With this subject, American film-makers would be proud of their own insolence at doing it, whereas Golino hardly notices herself, and lets us sink slowly into the ambiguities that gather round the matter of letting life end when it has lost its obvious vitality.

I’m not opposed to the genre energy of American movies. I am not even sure there hasn’t already been a picture about a Honey-like figure who also doubles as a contract killer. Can’t you see the impassive, unflinching beauty of Angelina Jolie or Natalie Portman in that narrative structure—with the unsettling mixture of murder and mercy? The more I think about it, the more I might like it, so long as the people doing it had the courage to stick with black comedy and so long as they can hire the Luis Buñuel of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie to direct it.

What I’m asking for is an approach to film that cracks the hard toffee carapace of attitudes to murder and lets us start thinking about life and death. The movies have made a fantastic, permitted industry of death, a profuse imaginary jungle. Talk to a group of film students at college. Ask them how many of them have seen a corpse, let alone the moments in which a live person becomes dead. It will be a surprise if you get 10 percent who have had that first encounter. But then ask them how many acts of killing they have seen on film and television—actual or simulated, documentary and fiction—and an elementary process of calculation and reasoning can get you up to 30,000 for someone who has not graduated from college yet. Then ask them to consider what impact that gap in numbers has had upon their “culture” and their being.

In no time at all, without even mentioning Syria or any of the other places that are testing Samantha Power as we watch, you will have those students in a torment of indecision in which morality and practicality have locked horns. A few weeks ago in these pages, Leon Wieseltier (“Xu’s Gift,” February 17) was lamenting that turmoil and our demoralization. We know what he means. But the gap between 10 percent and 30,000 is by now a solid chasm and has to do with the technological establishment of futility and indifference. Life isn’t what it used to be. With some humor and shy beauty, Honey is showing us this new rift in ourselves, and feeling its way through gravity to being a comedy—which these days is the only way of reclaiming outrage.

David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson).