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‘Balancing Act’

by Kaori Shoji

It’s a sad, anxious world when a hard-working dad has no choice but to sleep in his car and eat at a soup kitchen. Such is the fate of 40-year-old Giulio (Valerio Mastandrea), whose act of infidelity (sex with a colleague in the archives room of the Rome city office where he works) causes a deep, irreparable rupture in his marriage with Elena (Barbora Bobulova). The couple agree to stay together for the sake of their children — wannabe rock chick Camilla (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) and her innocent younger brother Luca (Lupo De Matteo). But one day Elena claims she can no longer bear Giulio’s presence and he leaves, telling her everything will be OK and that he’ll take care of money matters.

This is the world of “Balancing Act” (released originally as “Gli Equilibristi”): brilliant in its honesty and depiction of life in Rome, a view we could never glean from, say, Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love.”

There are no glamorous clubs, upscale restaurants or bright-red Ferraris parked up on the curb. This is a Rome where a city social worker such as Giulio gets a monthly salary of ?1400 with which he needs to maintain a separate apartment and pay for Luca’s dental work. But rents are high, the economy is sinking into the mud and as for the cost of living, every Roman complains it’s skyrocketed over the past few years.

Director/co-screenwriter Ivano De Matteo tells it like it is: For Giulio to cobble together a respectable existence, he must get a second job and get by on zero sleep. From listening to and dealing with other people’s hard-luck problems, Giulio himself morphs into a social case overnight. He goes through a string of humiliating incidents and just when he thinks he’s licking the bottom of the barrel, it turns out there’s a lower tier.

Mastandrea is one of Italy’s most recognizable comedy actors and he certainly has the hangdog demeanor down. Without complaining or even attempting to explain himself much, Giulio scrambles to keep his personal dignity. Camilla tries to help him and, in the process, the strong love she feels for her dad surprises them both. Their chemistry is wonderful, and in Giulio’s expression you see that the presence of his daughter inspires him, ultimately providing him with the will and energy to survive.

In many ways, “Balancing Act” is a love story. But as De Matteo shows us so succinctly, pretending that money shouldn’t interfere with love is not only hypocrisy, it’s a prelude to disaster. The message is loud and clear but the story has no solutions — just De Matteo’s sad but spot-on observation that only a decade ago, the economy would have accommodated mistakes such as Giulio’s. Now even a minor slip-up could lead to God-knows-where.

“Balancing Act” opens in Japan on Father’s Day weekend — indeed, it’s an ode to middle-class dads everywhere whose options are becoming increasingly limited, inside the home or out there in the working world. Surely they deserve better.