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Monica review – Trace Lysette superb as painful homecoming heals family wounds

A mysterious miracle is at the heart of this absorbing and superbly acted film from the Italian director Andrea Pallaoro, which refuses the cliched “issue movie” beats of confrontation, catharsis and resolution.

A mysterious miracle is at the heart of this absorbing and superbly acted film from the Italian director Andrea Pallaoro, which refuses the cliched “issue movie” beats of confrontation, catharsis and resolution. Like his previous work Hannah, which starred Charlotte Rampling as the haunted, troubled woman of that name, Monica is marked by its cool compositional rigour: scenes from a life are evoked with studied, often wordless vignettes and middle-distance shots from fixed camera positions, combined occasionally with looming, asymmetrical closeups.

Trans performer Trace Lysette plays Monica, who has an income from sex work and who, perhaps for professional reasons, has cultivated a coolly resonant, pleasingly modulated voice, which nonetheless rises to anger in various phone conversations of which we hear just one side: conversations with her partner or with clients who let her down. She is now experiencing a traumatic breakup, worsened by troubling news from home. Monica’s mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) is in the final stages of a condition involving dementia, being cared for in the luxurious family house from which Monica was thrown out as a teen. Her brother Paul (Joshua Close) and his wife Laura (Emily Browning) and their children are now helping, as is the housekeeper Leticia (Adriana Barraza). Of course, Eugenia does not recognise this new visitor but is apparently content to let Monica take part in the caring process.

The situation is deeply complex and painful. In a bedroom in what was once the family home, perhaps indeed Monica’s own former bedroom, Monica tries online sex work with a client (sex work which is just about keeping her temperamental red sports car on the road), but this is interrupted by Eugenia’s agonised crying and night terrors from across the hall. It is a situation which might in another film be the blackest of black horror-comedy, but here it is stoically and compassionately accepted as just another problem to be worked out.

There are things Monica wants to say to Eugenia, but now can’t. And yet slowly but surely an extraordinary thought arises – for reasons Eugenia can’t grasp, she feels easy and even happy around Monica. Both have entered a strange new state of grace: freed of history and identity, and all the toxic old painful family ties; they simply respond to each other as people. It is a return to innocence; there is a deeply moving scene in which Eugenia gazes into Monica’s face and smiles as contentedly as a child. And Paul himself, at first apparently hostile, thaws and reveals that he too as a young person felt vulnerable, and the possibility dawns that the source of the pain might have been their late father, rather than Eugenia. This is a tremendously crafted, impeccably intelligent film.

Peter Bradshaw, theguardian.com (12/12/2023)