Cinema Signal:

No Place to Hide:
Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society
by Robert O'Harrow
. "The Listening"
(aka, "In Ascolto")

This Italian-U.K. production mostly in English has the earmarks of a lavish, high budget production for an all-star cast. Had it gone that way I've little doubt it would be far more intelligible and better directed if, for no other reason than to appease the demands high priced talent brings to a project. As it is, the sole name that's recognizable to an American audience is Michael Parks, and that only to a demographic that's been around for awhile. Save for his stint in the "Kill Bill" volumes, this 66-year old (who is looking pretty good these days) hasn't exactly achieved the status of household name.

Which is relevant when you're trying to latch on to at least one character for some emotional meaning and/or sympathetic identification. But the part, as written and directed by Giacomo Martelli in his 2nd time out, and as acted out by Parks, is a challenge to sit through. There's a story here, but the hand guiding it is awkward, indeed. The style reminds me of the first time I tried to get up on skis.

What makes it a remarkable case is that there's so much potential. It's a spy thriller that is attempting to make a case against the dangers of Bush's Patriot Act, demonstrating what could happen when clandestine agencies are allowed to operate outside of constitutional restraints. And it does this with a technological concept that might have come out of an actual top secret military folder. The sets and machines supporting the sense of reality are low budget but adequate, meaning that the talent shows up in set and production design (Alessandro Marrazzo); the photography (Eric Maddison); with its nice, clean techie look; and props, which are mostly computer monitors against modern office minimalism. Christian Kusche-Tomasini proves an appropriate score.

If there is anything to criticize in the script and the physical part of the production, it would be the abundant attention to the credibility and detail of the advanced technology. It may cause some viewers to snooze a little here and there, but it's the part of the movie that I thought compensated for the less understood elements, like acting, staging, and editing.

The drama revolves around the kind of breakthrough technological achievement government agencies and law enforcement have wet dreams over: the capability to listen in through any phone, anywhere in the world, without planting devices. With the new, complex Echelon audio surveillance network, the phone itself is the device that is turned into a virtual microphone, presumably by constantly scanning radio waves from fleets of roving satellites. To make it practical, key words spoken trigger the immediate attention of multi-language listeners to determine guilt, agendas, terrorist plan and, certainly, location of those being overheard.

As National Security Agency spy James Wagley (Parks) points out to Echelon executive Anthony Ashe (James Parks), an antagonistic, arrogant type probably meant to characterize the sorts of people who have access behind Pentagon walls as well as control over the controllers, the system is not without its limits. The phone may be on the hook but it must be attached to power of some sort. Take batteries away and the phone is useless to Echelon purposes.

Pointing this shortcoming out during a demonstration meeting doesn't exactly endear Wagley to Ashe, but the fireworks between the two are only beginning.

The system is rife for dangerous mistakes and false interpretation, which is exactly what occurs when an agent loses his top secret papers in Rome and they fall innocently into the hands of Rome art gallery staffer Francesca (Maya Sansa, "Good Morning, Night"). Of course she gets on the phone and, of course, she reads the title of the top secret guidebook into it. Before you can say "easy explanation" she's in a room being tortured, under the full sight and control of our pal Ashe who could be a kissin' cousin to Saddam Hussein.

Wagley, a guy with ethics, is the only person around with the brass brazenness to oppose this goon Ashe, a guy who eats ethics with his dry cereal. Wagley gets righteous, does what he can to stop the treatment of the girl in an interrogation that might have been trained for at Guantanamo, gets fired and sets up his own counter-operation on Mont Blanc, an Alp outpost in Turin.

Sansa, an Italian-Iranian beauty with obvious potential, comes out the best from the standpoint of performance, by being as straightforward as she's permitted to be in an underwritten part. Still, any romantic attachment to the sensitive snowcat driver is a matter of a few pregnant looks and a lot of understatement. Let's not get sidetracked here on a sexual or emotional vector.

It comes off as a thriller yarn in which the creative understanding is complete in regard to the technology and its rather cleverly devised problems and counter-foil solutions, but it's somewhere in spatial orbit regarding the aspects of characterization and plotting. Oh, well, you can't have everything--not even English sub-titles that are easily readable.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Michael Parks as a spy for the NSA.

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