For many people, a conversation about what foods are good for you opposed to what isn’t is as familiar as a pair of socks that’s been through the washer too often. By my calculations, a loving couple can argue just as much over food as over their finances, and the arguing can even escalate to a screaming match once the question of what to feed the children enters into it.

Author and journalist Michael Pollan made it sound so easy when he exhorted us to eat “real food,” though not too much of it, but as “Hungry Hearts” reveals, the gastronomy issue can be complicated, confusing and ultimately terrifying. A young married couple discovers this the hard way as food literally becomes an extreme bone of contention that eventually tears them apart.

“Hungry Hearts” is Italian Saverio Constanzo’s first foray into the English language arena, and though it is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Volpi Cup for both best actress and best actor at the Venice Film Festival two years ago, it hasn’t seen much international distribution apart from at film festivals. It hasn’t even opened in the United States yet.

Hungry Hearts
Run Time 109 mins
Language English
Opens OCT. 15

Constanzo treads a fine line between compelling drama and suspension of belief with this story of how food obsession triggers the destruction of a loving relationship. Perhaps he would have been better off setting the story in Italy (the film is based on an Italian best-seller by Marco Franzoso) instead of the Upper West Side in Manhattan, where some of the societal portrayals seem far removed from the reality of urban American life. When husband Jude (Adam Driver) visits a doctor’s office for advice, for example, he gets zero help — an unusual occurrence for U.S. hospitals or clinics that normally would not send patients away empty-handed.

Having said that, “Hungry Hearts” recalls the American classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” the psychological horror about an obsessive mother and her newborn. But while Rosemary’s fears and obsessions were justified, in “Hungry Hearts” Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) leaves much room for doubt. Physically, she resembles Rosemary: blonde, fragile and frighteningly thin. Next to the nearly 190-cm frame of Driver as Jude (his agonies suggest Thomas Hardy rather than the Beatles Song), she makes you think of a tiny bird, afraid of even the sky. Jude, for his part, comes off as a towering, clumsy galoot, and unfortunately for him and the story, Constanzo never stops depicting him that way.

The very first scenes are happy and buoyant, if a little disgusting. Mina meets Jude in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant just as Jude is on the toilet in the throes of an unfortunate bowel incident. She accidentally locks herself in the restroom, and somehow it’s love at first sight. The two swiftly start dating and just as hastily get married. After a laughter-infused wedding, Mina promptly gets pregnant, but then the first signs of worrisome behavior appear.

Mina refuses to eat and starts losing weight. She’s not strong enough for a natural delivery (nor is the baby) and so has a cesarean. When her son is finally ready to leave the incubator and is taken home, she decides not to feed him anything but vegetables grown in the makeshift garden she has cultivated on the rooftop of the couple’s apartment building. The baby is undernourished, and Mina clearly needs help, but she’ll have nothing to do with doctors. Jude, left torn between loving his disturbed wife and needing to save his son, resorts to kidnapping the baby and feeding him ham in a church, which later culminates into a scene so disturbing it may turn you off meat for a while.

“Hungry Hearts” draws superb performances from both Driver and Rohrwacher, though the latter is burdened with becoming increasingly hateful as the story progresses.

People always say we are what we eat. After “Hungry Hearts” you may take that adage more seriously.

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