★ ★ ★
Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts is a slick, propulsive thriller that grips you for the entirety of its runtime; much more tightly plotted than the usual art-house fare, it’s the sort of film that will keep you on edge while you’re watching it and leave you feeling wrung out afterward. But it will also leave you feeling manipulated and more than a little disgusted: Is it any surprise that this movie gets under your skin, when it’s about a young mother whose obsession with protecting her newborn could be slowly killing him? You don’t need an artful director or a subtle script to unsettle people with that premise, and truthfully, the story never really moves beyond simple button pushing. The movie could be summarized as “Rosemary’s Baby if Rosemary were the head of the cult,” but while Roman Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece is a rich, nuanced film that works (and disturbs) on multiple levels, Hungry Hearts never goes any further than preying on some pretty basic fears.
The film starts off with a terrific opening, albeit one that serves as misdirection for where the story is going to end up. Jude (Adam Driver) and Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) are two young New Yorkers who first meet when they are trapped together in the tiny bathroom of a Chinese restaurant. Their entire meet cute plays out in one long take, as the pair ponder their options (breaking down the door, calling the restaurant on a cell phone if they can remember its name) and slowly start flirting with each other. It feels like the beginning of a charming indie rom-com, and that upbeat mood continues through the next several scenes, which rush through the early stages of their relationship: We see them together in bed, then Mina learns she’s pregnant, then they have a quickie wedding. So far, so good (unless your greatest fear is unwanted pregnancy, in which case the horror has already begun).
But there are hints that something is a little off about Mina. Originally from Italy and working in New York City at her country’s embassy, she appears to have no friends or support circle aside from Jude. Her mother is already deceased and her elderly father is too infirm to leave Italy. She doesn’t have any guests of her own at her wedding, which prompts Jude’s mom (Roberta Maxwell) to take her aside and promise that they’ll have a close relationship. Shortly thereafter, Mina has a cryptic vision that convinces her something bad will happen to her baby, and her fears are further stoked when a psychic tells her that her offspring is actually an “indigo child” with a special destiny.
Mina is already a vegan, but she takes this as a sign that she needs to go on an even more restrictive diet for the sake of her baby’s health, despite repeated warnings from doctors that she’s malnourished. She refuses to listen to their advice or Jude’s pleas, which almost results in her miscarrying. After a complicated and taxing birth, she puts her child on the same limited diet, even feeding him a mysterious elixir that could be permanently stunting his growth.
At this point, there are a number of fascinating directions the screenplay could go in. Mina’s insistence that she knows what her child needs better than any doctor puts her in the company of a lot of suspicious New Ager parents; her mania could be seen as the anti-vaxxer mentality taken to its horrifying conclusion. Or the story could dig deeper into Mina and Jude’s relationship, painting it as a cautionary tale for why you shouldn’t marry someone you barely know. Or it could go with a truly bonkers plot twist that pushes the movie into supernatural territory—something akin to Rosemary learning the full extent of the Satanists’ plans—by revealing that Mina herself is an otherworldly creature (the vague details about her past certainly seem to hint that she’s hiding some kind of secret).
Without giving too much away, let’s say that the story settles for (D.) none of the above. We never really learn what makes Mina tick, but the movie’s lack of answers feels less like ambiguity and more like a refusal to commit to any big ideas. Even worse, it turns her into a one-dimensional villain, a role that plays on all of the worst stereotypes of women acting hysterically crazy. It gets so bad that, when Jude physically attacks his wife on two separate occasions (in scenes specifically shot to look like instances of spousal abuse), we’re supposed to cheer that he’s finally standing up to her to protect his son.
The tug of war between Jude and Mina is never less than riveting, and it escalates slowly but believably to a shocking conclusion. Yet Hungry Hearts is empty at its core, and neither the terrific performances by Driver and Rohrwacher nor Costanzo’s increasingly garish direction (which includes everything from noirish lighting to canted angles to shooting multiple scenes with a fish-eye lens) can obscure that fact. There’s nothing noble about holding an audience’s attention by threatening to hurt a baby for almost two hours.