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A Vipers' Pit - a local, disquieting film

A Vipers' Pit, Maltese title Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi, is a local film based on the eponymous novel by Alex Vella Gera. I don't get to write a lot of reviews about Maltese films because local productions rarely happen. I can't remember the last time I watched a local film in a cinema. I think it might have been Simshar, and that was 7 years ago.

So here's my review of A Vipers' Pit:

Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi, adapted from Alex Vella Gera’s eponymous novel, follows two timelines. One trails Richard Sammut Petri in an attempt to assassinate the then incumbent Prime Minister Dom Mintoff in 1984. The other follows his son Noel, years later in 2012. Noel is in the dark about what happened to his father years ago, unaware of the secret conspiracy to murder the controversial prime minister — he’s been told his father Richard disappeared, but he believes that he abandoned his family 28 years prior while he was working abroad.

Martin Bonnici’s direction is unassuming. The cinematography is hardly experimental, choosing to remain largely stationery and focusing on the characters that populate each scene. The changes to this formula are subtle but extremely powerful. When Noel has nightmares about his missing father, the picture vibrates violently. In these nightmares, Richard Sammut Petri, played by Gianni Selvaggi, is seen at the edge of the karst looking out at sea. These scenes are positively chilling and often imbued with foreshadowing images that flash for a brief moment.

During the more intense sequences of the thriller, the camera is unsteady too, emulating a panting viewer, but it’s hardly noticeable. These directorial choices executed a riveting production that made for good Maltese cinema.

Screenwriter Teodor Reljić remained largely faithful to the source material but his storytelling has the expedition that is well adapted to the screen. A lot is told about social class, tal-pepe (snobs), ħamalli (chavs), and the outsider, but without any overlong expository material. In a bleak landscape torn between the 1984 political crisis and the unscrupulous free-market capitalism of 2012, the script finds ways to be funny, charming, touching, even terrifying.

This was brought to life by an excellent cast. At first glance, Gianni Selvaggi’s clean-shaven, adolescent lankiness seems incongruous with the protagonist’s role. But his cartoonish expressions at Major Spiteri’s (Paul Portelli) demand that he is to kill Dom Mintoff contribute to the emotional resonance of the character, especially when he is set alongside the burly and imposing Joseph Zammit, who plays his co-conspirator and friend, Roger Tabone Sr.

Selvaggi is small and vulnerable. His appeal to Roger Tabone Sr to take care of his wife Maureen (Tina Rizzo) if something were to happen to him during the assassination attempt is as veritably heartbreaking as Roger’s presence is guileful and sinister.

Sammut Petri’s son, Noel, (Chris Galea) and Roger’s son, Roger Jr (Joe Azzopardi), in the 2012 scenes are believable and relatable. Noel’s affair with Frances Tabone (Erica Muscat) is raw and brings about their character motivations and shortcomings convincingly. At one point, Frances gets out of bed and comes to her easel to finish her painting. Noel joins her soon after, providing a shirtless hug from behind her as she grapples with her palette. Noel—arguably a stand-in for Vella Gera, the author—is many things throughout the film. He’s cross and harsh with his brother Simon (Matthew Maggi), he keeps his head down when he’s next to Roger Sr, and he’s tender and exposed with Frances. Chris Galea is convincing whatever colour of the actor’s palette he employs.

There is a collective charisma and charm about all these characters, brought together triumphantly by a tight script and mature directing, which made for a satisfying and startling adaptation of a novel that seemed, at first glance, tricky to translate to the screen. While the film is political, the direction does not belabour the audience and it does not overemphasize Dom Mintoff’s problematic leadership. This ambiguity lends the conspiracy to murder him a questionable pitch – Major Spiteri’s role is, at the end of the day, villainous, and Richard Sammut Petri is easier to root for as a result.

Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi isn’t an art house kind of film and it doesn’t try to be although it is about the characters and how these react to Dom Mintoff’s administration and its ripple effects. It is an entertaining, topical, and disquieting feature that should leave a mark on anyone whether they’re aware of the venom in local politics or not.

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