Childbirth is the most violent aspect of human existence. Consider: there are peaceful deaths but there are no peaceful births. So any film that concerns itself with the subject of childbirth and infancy has a built-in level of tension and emotional investment on the part of the audience. Two great films, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), used the trappings of the horror genre to tell piercing stories about the anxieties involved with having and raising children. The former asks: what if my baby is monstrous? The latter: what if there is something very, very wrong with my child? Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts poses a new question: what if there is something wrong with my wife?
Yet grouping Hungry Hearts together with the two aforementioned films runs the risk of categorizing it by association as a horror film. But it isn’t one…not entirely. Neither is it a thriller. It is one of those blessed miracle films that borrows bits and pieces from different genres without fully subscribing to them. Instead, all of its tonal shifts—from quirky comedy to drama, from drama to horror, from horror to thriller—occur naturally and organically.
Quirky comedy: Jude (Adam Driver) and Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) are two young people who meet cute under the unsexiest circumstances possible: they become trapped together in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant while Jude has a diarrhea attack. This five-minute scene (which also opens the film) is captured with a single static unbroken take, thereby allowing the natural charisma of the actors to shine through as they stammer and nervously small-talk their way through Jude’s intestinal spasms.
Drama: Jude and Mina have a child. But the child is premature and sickly. Even worse, Mina insists on New Age pregnancy treatments and a queer vegan diet which, unbeknownst to Jude, is starving their son. Mina murmurs a prophecy she received from a palm reader about their son being an “Indigo Child” as she obsesses over his health.
Horror: Jude realizes that Mina has gone insane and is literally killing their son. Jude kidnaps him and takes him to his grandmother’s house.
Thriller: Mina decides to take her son back.
If I have given the impression that Hungry Hearts is a pulse-pounding nail-biter, I should correct myself by pointing out that it is a film first and foremost about restraint. Mina is never demonized as a wicked or cruel person. Instead, she is a tragic character with a wounded mind. She does not become a slasher villain in the last act—indeed, her method of getting her son back is even more shocking and horrifying than if she really did materialize behind Jude wearing a hockey mask. Even at their most strained, Jude and Mina remain a sympathetic, believable couple who are simply in over their heads. Costanzo’s control over the film’s emotional pitch is nothing short of astonishing. Hungry Hearts is a tour de force: shocking without being shocking, tense yet controlled, emotional without the aid of melodrama.