Across the River

Italy. Directed by Lorenzo Bianchini, 2013. Starring Marco Marchese.

Ethologist Marco Contrada (played by Marco Marchese) prowls the wilderness near the Italian/Slovenian border, living out f a caravan. Here he conducts his regular wildlife survey, which includes trapping animals and strapping cameras onto them, to track their nocturnal behavior. What he finds disturbs him: something stalks these remote woods, savaging foxes and wild pigs, something that hasn’t shown up on his camera footage.

His research takes him across a shallow river to the crumbling remains of a deserted village. Soon enough, Marco finds the source of the animal killings: two diminutive, figures who show up on his night-vision footage.

Marco has no idea what happened in this village, decades ago. He doesn’t know that two little girls lived here during the second World War. He doesn’t know that the girls’ neighbors feared them and whispered rumors of witchcraft. He doesn’t know what happened to the girls when the soldiers came, or why they laid a curse on the village.

All he knows is that when heavy rains fall and the river floods, he is trapped here…with the savage, spectral creatures who slaughter the local wildlife.

The above synopsis of Across the River probably gives the impression that it’s a standard, run-of-the-mill horror picture. A movie, with found-footage elements, about a researcher stranded in a remote European wilderness, where decades before a terrifying atrocity occurred, and a supernatural force still roamed? Gee, I think it’s been two days since I’ve seen one of those. The difference between Across the River and a thousand other similar films proves Roger Ebert’s familiar rule: a movie is not so much about what it’s about, but how it’s about it.

To start us off, the film has very little plot. Marco Contrada is the only major character, and he never interacts with any of the other characters. He occasionally talks to himself, or speaks into a digital recorder, which means dialogue is very sparse. Director/co-writer Lorenzo Bianchini reveals backstory in a parallel plot that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the main story until the end.

He also largely eschews jump-scares in favor of ramping up the creep factor, and paces his movie slowly. Very slowly. 2001: A Space Odyssey seems brisk by comparison.

Its lack of incident, dialogue and character development will turn off the average filmgoer, and even the average horror fan. However, these aren’t flaws in the film per se; they’re simply things that the film does differently from what we expect. The flipside is that Bianchini has crafted an intensely atmospheric film.

We don’t need reams of character development; in this case, knowing so little about Contrada actually makes him so relatable. He becomes a sort of Everyman who wanders toward his doom almost at random. What happens to him is terrifying in part because his survey feels more like a camping trip than the sort of important expedition at the heart of The Blair Witch Project and his many imitators. Something like this could happen in any rural locale far off the beaten path.

Where Across the River really shines is in its mise-en-scene. Bianchini makes brilliant use of his locations and every shot hammers home the idea of isolation. (One thought I kept returning to while watching is that it must have been an extremely difficult shoot.) The decaying village oozes dread from every pore, the sort of place one would naturally expect Silent Hill-type goings-on to occur. Even the remote-camera footage is effective. The scene in which the girls first appear plays beautifully off of familiar found-footage clichés, like the Xbox Kinect scenes in Paranormal Activity 4 done right. And the sound design is a masterpiece.

As impressed as I was with it, I believe most will find it exceptionally dull. I can certainly sympathize with this point of view; there were points at which I found the film trying my patience–and I love slow films. Too many times I felt the urge to scream for it to get a move on already, and it could stand from a more ruthless round of editing–its hour-and-forty running time is just too long.

That being said, if you’re bored with the same-old same-old and have a yen to try something very unconventional, keep an eye out for Across the River. It’s not for everyone, but it just might be for you.

Thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society and Chicago Filmmakers for bringing Across the River to Chicago.

Across the River

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