A meaty debut by Gianluca Mangiasciutti.
While labelled as a thriller by the majority of online critics, Gianluca Mangiasciutti's debut feature film is more of a character-oriented psychological drama featuring a finely outlined protagonist, teenage girl Irene, incarnated in perfection by Aurora Giovinazzo (Freaks Out, Up&Down) who assigns authenticity and vivacity to a rather idiosyncratic character. The Man on the Road (original title: L' uomo sulla strada) follows closely Irene's quest for redemption and vindication, offering no easy answers and conclusions to the audience with the screenwriters, Serena Cervoni (Alta infedeltà) and Mariano di Nardo (Children of the Night, Regina) crafting a highly engaging narrative regardless of the fact that the primary plot trope that the director employs may come across as dated or even obsolete. It's the type of film in which the audience knows from the outset the who and why and what remains to be seen is when the protagonist is going to become privy to the already divulged to the viewers information.
The story commences with a potent scene where little girl Irene plays with her father in the fields and watches him die from a fatal hit-and-run incident. While she makes eye contact with the driver, she cannot recollect his image later, no matter how hard she tries. Then, the narrative moves forward in time and we watch as Irene is now a moody and contentious teenager, forever mentally scarred by his father's untimely demise ten years earlier. Irene attempts to release the pressure valve by participating in swimming contests, a sport that she seems to genuinely love. However, she is not so fond of antagonism, hence her violent reaction after losing a race by an inch. This incident results in Irene moving from her home where she lives along with her mother, stepfather, and stepsister to live with her aunt. Things seem to straighten up for the protagonist who finds a much-needed job in a factory. The business's director, however, is none else than the man who smashed her father and left him for dead in the road.
Despite the simplicity of the central idea that fuels the story and the overused narrative techniques used by Mangiasciutti, The Man on the Road strikes some deep emotional chords for various reasons, the most prominent being the high-quality optics, top-notch level of performances in all roles, and exemplary character development. The latter is also the production's strongest suit, as Irene will have to face several challenges that will gradually transform her from a belligerent adolescent into a young woman. The finale may stir debates regarding its possible interpretation, but I saw it as a natural, organic consequence of the story's mood and tone that ranges from depressing to romantic and intimate. From what I gathered by checking out the online reviews of The Man on the Road, there are many viewers who found the film a bit boring, but they have completely missed the point. The understated atmosphere is the key to unlocking the emotional depth of the story, and both the director and screenwriters remain loyal to that tone from the beginning until the finale. This is one of the most compelling film debuts for 2023, and I believe that we will see it nominated for several movie awards.