Directed by Luigi Comencini
With Stefano Colagrande (Andrew Duncombe), Simone Giannozi (Miles Duncombe), Anthony Quayle (Sir John Edward Duncombe), John Sharp (Uncle Will)
The camera is stuck against the right side of a black limousine which rides up an alley leading to a beautiful estate near Florence. When the driver pulls up, the camera circles around the car, capturing the two men sitting in the back still talking, one of them obviously distraught, the other fully sympathetic. Symbol of officialdom, the car evokes a world of adults working and struggling behind closed doors, a distant and difficult world where men are burdened with responsibilities, the world which the lead adult character of the film, Sir John Edward Duncombe, the British consul in Florence, who has just lost his wife, belongs to.
The next sequence is a visual polar opposite, if only because it starts with shouts and laughter, while the previous was mainly silent. It takes place in a garden and shows in medium shots two kids frolicking over the greenery, under the benevolent gaze of a quiet old woman, soon rejoined by a feistier and younger one. This is the world which the nice and naive paintings, so redolent of the 18th century, over which the titles rolled, have been heralding: the carefree, lively world of childhood. But the elder of the two kids seems to have some worrisome thought in his mind, as he walks over wilting roses on the terrace’s floor. They are the children of the British consul in Florence, Andrew, this slightly worried big boy, and his junior brother, Miles.
How these worlds would come to terms with a life deprived of the wife and the mother, on their own and then together, is the topic of the narrative. There seems at first to be a perfect understanding between the father and his eldest son: Andrew is aware of what happened to his mother (the old couple looking after the kids had talked too much and too loudly) and accepts without too much emotion the tragedy; he is actually eager to help his father, and agrees never to talk Miles the truth, a radical decision John Edward Duncombe has taken in the first minutes of the film, and a rather gentle but truly unrealistic idea (sooner or later, Miles would have to learn about his mother’s death and cope with it).
But this friendly conversation, taking place behind the closed doors of the father’s studio in the house turns out to foster the misunderstanding promised by the title. The son hopes to get a friend, the father reckons he has a responsible young partner able to take care of himself, which means he can focus on the well-being of Miles, a child who is less healthy and more fragile, he thinks. The assumptions of both are terribly flawed.
In this melodrama, Florence and its environs are not always a sunny place. Weather can be easily overcast, and water soaks the ground, and even more the ground on which the flimsy entente between father and son is built. It takes an epic night of thunderstorm to spook Miles enough to cry the unacceptable: without prompt and without reason, the boy claims his mother is dead, appalling his father who right way gets angry at Andrew. Miffed that his denial is dismissed, Andrew wanders in the mansion (great wide shots of a little boy dashing through the darkened place, first determined to make his case heard, and then to find solace), and takes shelter in his late mother’s bedroom, the first time her beautiful portrait appears in the film before becoming a poignant leitmotif. Meanwhile John Edward Duncombe has locked himself up in his room, with Miles he has so foolishly over-protected. The whole episode is the first step of the drama: the growing distrust of the father for his elder son, his eagerness to blame a child who is so keen to demonstrate his allegiance and is always deeply concerned about his little brother.
Other key moments are linked to water, but they are not always malevolent. It is under a pouring rain that Uncle Will arrives, a middle-aged, sarcastic relative who claims he does not like children and yet realizes the sad truth the film has delicately illustrated: that Andrew has not got over the death of his mother, and yearns for her as much as his father, while Miles, unlike what the father reckoned, proves to be more resilient. Uncle Will does try to influence John Edward Duncombe, but bringing Andrew behind the closed doors of his office to share part of his life with his excited son, sharing his ivory tower, proves fruitless. A car washing job that makes Miles slightly sick right away causes the father to punish again, forbidding Andrew to spend a long-awaited weekend in Rome with his father. Andrew’s suffering seems endless, till the final disaster happens. As he is by testing how strong an old dead tree’s branch overhanging over the little river running through the estate Miles rushes to climb the tree, causing the branch to fall in the watery, ugly spot the film has already displayed with an increasingly disquieting emphasis. Symbol of life, water carries the death of a dream; nature is not a heaven and a haven any longer.
But there is still a lot of sunshine, too in “Incompreso – Misunderstood”: for most part, it remains a light-hearted, really funny, full of tenderness portrait of two brothers, linked by a strong affectionate bond, devoted to their father, putting up fierce resistance to a governess hired to look after them, though clearly they are up to the task, and just want their mother. Their foolish, mischievous, absurd behaviors make for a delightful watch: the director gets from the two young actors really great, enticing performances, and records them in wonderful and vivid shot compositions. This visual flair also allows Luigi Comencini to highlight Andrew’s disappointments and pains, and his film stands as a most acute, subtle observation of a child’s feelings, which is shored up by clever and moving screenplay ideas with great melodramatic effect (the discovery of a voice recorder and the dangerous game of touching and manipulating endlessly the buttons till the magic voice carried by the tape tragically vanishes, or the writing of texts as symbol of the bond between father and son getting built as Andrew wished – first it is a letter to an ambassador the awkward father dictates to the excited son, but the scene is cut short, and then it is the end of a school assignment that the dying son dictates to his sheepish and sorry father, as now it is life that is cut short, alas).