Some films want you to have a horrible time watching them. They try very hard to accomplish this. Horrible characters, doing unsavory things in unpleasant ways, shot in gruesome detail with off-putting sounds and intentionally uncomfortable editing. A few of these pull off an odd magic trick in the process, and pose some interesting and valuable questions regarding ethics, morals, and whether we really should ‘live and let live.’ Bad Tales, however, is not one of these few. It is simply a repellent experience, with little of any discernible value to offer beyond flat misanthropy.
Written and directed by Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo, this 98-minute Italian film set in a suburban community is 98 minutes of morose, lifeless condemnation of the horrid area’s despicable inhabitants. Fathers and mothers who should never be parents, their offspring who suffer terribly as a result, and the grotesqueries that take place as these groups plod on through a miserable existence. To the film’s credit, Bad Tales has a knack for pinpointing certain behaviors that highlight a person’s particularly awful qualities, such as an early scene in which an arrogant father forces his children to read out their report cards to dinner guests. In the process, he imposes his family’s implicit superiority over the others, demonstrates his ability and willingness to order his children back and forth like a military leader, and humiliates his daughter for having one ‘A’ while her brother has scores of ‘A+’ across the board. It’s a useful indicator of what the rest of the film has in store: deeply grim situations grasping at semi-convincing strands of truth but failing to elicit anything close to profundity or insight. Suffering for the sake of suffering.
At times, the script seems intentionally satirical, as if layering on the miseries to parody this exact type of film. For example, a loathsome 20-something pregnant woman flits between offering tweens sexual favors and bullying them relentlessly. As she ‘charms’ one young boy with some cookies, she presses one to her engorged nipple and soaks it in the breast milk that trickles out. He eats the cookie. She cackles at him. It’s very unpleasant.
Moments recall other, superior films that pull off something more engaging with the sadism-in-suburbia setup. The raucous 2018 Australian comedy Swinging Safari took a messier but much livelier approach to the idea, while Bad Tales remains exhaustingly slow and trite the entire way through. The English title of the film seems intentionally reminiscent of the 2014 Argentinian anthology film Wild Tales, but the comparison sputters out after considering their names. That film was coated in razor-sharp identification of how far various humans are willing to go to protect whatever value systems our modern world has convinced them to sanctify, whereas Bad Tales simply offers morbid jabs at ‘disillusionment’ without probing the complexities of how such a notion plays out.
Instead, these people’s disillusionment, boredom, and crass ribaldry play out in predictably reckless, irresponsible ways; every man wants to have sex with, or rape, the prettiest woman he can see, every woman has no ambition or depth, and every child is hopeless and abandoned by disinterested guardians. Only two adults take any interest in any children’s well-being during these tales; one is a buoyant, brainless father who encourages his very young son to lose his virginity by any means necessary, the other a teacher who believes the best way for these kids to flourish is to bring the depraved town crashing violently to the ground. One of the more interesting storylines involves this teacher secretly training his students in the ways of urban terrorism, though this also adds up to nothing by the end.
The film is bookended by a decent narrative gag, wherein a voiceover explains at the beginning and end that the viewer is watching the contents of a little girl’s diary, which the narrator found in the garbage. The hook is, the little girl’s writing abruptly stops, and the man who found the book is curious to know why. There is a neat return to this question as the film wraps up, involving a non-linear piece of editing that offers a glimpse of a much more interesting film buried deep, deep down within this dreary experience. That other, implied film remarks on the ouroboros of suburban disenchantment, on vapid lifestyles which sap the life out of people and force them to do the same to all around them.
Something in this final ‘twist’ manages to be quite interesting, but it feels like adding insult to injury to tease the audience with the idea that we have just watched a worse version of what should have been made. Thankfully, other films exist that do fare better at addressing the exact same problems; we would do well to just turn to those instead.