Engrossing Italian crime drama The Girl by the Lake, or La Ragazza Del Lago, is a first rate film, and gives a bit of continental competition to its British counterparts, who have a long tradition of producing crime dramas of depth and quality.
Anna Nadal (Alessia Piovan) is an attractive, athletic young girl, known and liked throughout her small home town. When she is found naked and dead next to a nearby lake, Inspector Giovanni Sanzio (Toni Servillo) arrives to investigate. There is no shortage of likely suspects. The loafing boyfriend Roberto (Denis Fasolo), the father who enjoys filming his young daughter in her swimsuit just a bit too much, the mentally handicapped man who lives by the lake, or the man Corrado Canali (Fabrizio Gifuni), whose son Anna used to babysit. Sanzio doggedly investigates, leaving no lead unresolved.
And he has his own problems at home. His wife is suffering from a degenerative brain disease, causing her to forget her family entirely, and fall in love with another patient at the rest home. And Sanzio's relationship with his daughter is strained, not least because of his wife's condition. The threads of these two seemingly unrelated plotlines are woven together effortlessly. As Sanzio comes to terms with his wife's illness, he sees his situation mirrored, at a slant at least, in the people and situations he uncovers in his search for the murderer. His discovery of the roots of the crime coincides with his discovery of what is important in his own relationships. The police procedure and investigation are really just the methods used to illuminate the characters and hit thematic points. This is a drama about relationships dressed up like a detective story.
This is not to say that the investigation isn't interesting. It is. As the layers of truth and untruth, integrity and shame, wisdom and foolishness are pulled back, as each suspect is taken up and rejected, the viewer slides deeper and deeper into the world of the film and the small town in which it takes place. But the film is not simply interested in delivering an engaging murder mystery, which it does, but also in presenting believable, multi-faceted, empathetic characters. This is where its true strength lies. The mystery grows organically from the fabric of the town. Each person in it is distinct and memorable. And even those the viewer ends up disliking are shown with compassion and understanding, as real human beings not one note villains. Sanzio particularly is well crafted, as written as well as performed by Servillo, and for which he won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival. Sanzio, like the other characters, is no cardboard cutout or stereotype, but a man with depth, with failings as well as strengths, and we appreciate him all the more for it.
The Girl by the Lake is certainly not a fast paced thriller or a cartoonish noir knockoff. It moves at its own pace, and works by the slow reveal rather than car chases, explosions and shootouts. The piecemeal revelation of the truth, the fitting together of the puzzle, along with the concomitant exposure of the characters and their true natures are what make the film such a delight. Not for those seeking to shut their brain off and absorb, but for those who like to think through their films, this one is highly recommended.