Compassion (2013)

Review first published by EyeforFilm

Compassion, a short film by writer/director Roberto Oliveri, opens with a wide shot of an empty living room. Even when its owner, an unnamed ‘old woman’ (Diana Quick), drifts into view, that emptiness persists, now translated into a palpable loneliness. Searching for her glasses, she pauses over a pocket watch engraved with a personal dedication, before reading a book, preparing her dinner and eating it alone. Everything is quiet but for the ticking of an unseen clock which, like the pocket watch, calibrates this woman’s routine of isolation. But then an unexpected sound intrudes, and she finds herself confronting a young, shaven-headed burglar (Ricky Champ).

That this unlikely pair then sits down together to a cup of tea and an exchange of stories is only the first in a series of subtle twists, as what might have been a home invasion thriller becomes instead a more humanist drama in which two people, despite their differences in class, age and sex, discover that they share a sense of abandonment and loss. Hence the title – but though presented in an elegant monochrome, Compassion is coloured by several red herrings, with Oliveri’s repeated misdirections keeping us guessing just how far that titular feeling will be extended.

If the burglar would like to avoid a prison sentence, his victim is already serving one in her own home; and the watch that she so ruefully cherishes, and that he has greedily pocketed for himself, is already inscribed with betrayal. Accordingly, we are given an object lesson in how easily compassion can turn to cruelty – and much as these two characters sit, face to face, in judgement of one another, we too are invited to reach our own verdict on the proceedings.

Oliveri is confident enough in his material to keep his camera mostly at a distance, to eschew any kind of emotion-cueing score, and to let the desolation of his well-timed silences be filled, perhaps even momentarily sweetened, by the nuances of both the screenplay and the performances. It is an impressive debut.

Anton Bitel