The Solitude of Prime Numbers was one of the films I was most looking forward to in the Tokyo International Film Festival, just because I found Alba Rohrwacher’s subtly tortured performance in Giovanna’s Father so good. Rohrwacher is indeed good in the film, in another role of a mentally troubled woman, and she appears to have lost a dangerous amount of weight as her character racked by anorexia. Her costar, Luca Marinelli, is also good as the boy she had a teenage crush on who grows up and moves away to work as a mathematician. I haven’t read the best-selling novel by Italian physicist and first time writer Paolo Giordano, but reviews speak of its poetic magic, which seems to have been partially lost in the translation to film.
The book and film follow the parallel lives of Mattia and Alice, as they move from child to teenagers, and then to insecure adults. They are always somehow near each other, but separated, like the prime numbers 11 and 13. Both are socially alienated due to childhood traumas—Mattia’s caused by his embarrassment over his mentally disabled twin sister, and Alice’s by an accident after her father drives her to be a champion skier. His trauma is emotional, and hers is physical, but by the time they first meet as teenagers, when Alice develops a crush on the quiet math nerd, they have both suffered plenty in the other arena. They meet again as adults at a wedding of a girl who used to bully her, but has now hired her to photograph the ceremony, but they soon separated, when Mattia accepts a fellowship to study in Germany. They live solitary lives while he grows fat and she goes stick thin, and they both prefer solitude over companionship.
The film is constantly jumping back and forth between these four eras, using three different sets of actors (only two of the six actually resemble each other). This at first made the story a bit difficult to follow, and soon became a bit annoying. There are a few wonderfully handled scenes, such as Alice awaking and, in a dream-like state, gliding through her apartment which is completely overgrown with green vines, crossing time and space till she arrives at the childhood room of Mattia. In another scene, she wanders into a supermarket, and weary from anorexia, begins shoveling food into her mouth until she believes she sees Mattia and faints. One of the longest single scenes is directly in the middle of the film, and shows the closest the two ever come to each other. Alice has invited the shy Mattia to a teenage party, where her friend Viola (whose eventual wedding we have already seen) coaches her on how to kiss a boy. When the two are alone in an upstairs bedroom, Alice asks if he would like to kiss her, and he bluntly answers no. When they rejoin the party, it becomes clear that Viola has only invited Alice to ridicule her. While the scene ambitiously tries to capture the experience of teenage alienation, the throbbing eurotrash techno and the pulsating strobe lights go annoying quick, and seemed to actually make a few people in the audience physically ill.