Zen in the Ice Rift, an Italian drama from writer-director Margherita Ferri, opens quite strikingly. We first see non-binary teenager Maia ‘Zen’ Zenardi (Eleonora Conti) give the middle-finger to the audience. This is before walking up to a group of male teens with a BB gun and opening fire, the goal being to give them a scare.
The audience come to learn that Zen’s abrasive hardened attitude is a response to years of bullying. An aspiring ice-hockey player in a small Italian mountain village, their teammates – the one’s shot at earlier – constantly hurl homophobic and derogatory insults. Recently, this abuse has been escalating further. A particularly distressing sequence sees the boys use a bike lock to trap the protagonist to a railing.
Yet, while the movie is named after Zen, an equally important character is Vanessa (Susanna Acchiardi), a girlfriend of one of the bullies. In exchange for freeing the protagonist from the railing, she asks for the key to their mother’s barely occupied mountain lodge. She and her boyfriend want to have sex for the first-time but have nowhere to do so privately.
Zen relents and gives her the key. However while at the lodge, Vanessa finds herself repulsed when having sex. Realising she may be a lesbian, she begins to cut ties with her boyfriend and popular friends. Wanting to get away from it all, Vanessa begins to spend more time at Zen’s lodge, where the two begin to form a bond over being misunderstood and feeling lonely.
Both the strength and weakness of Zen in the Ice Rift is how it gestures towards coming-of-age story tropes – an unlikely friendship, a sporting competition, that first big romance – without ever fully embracing them. There’s no cathartic relief or happy ending here a la Booksmart, Handsome Devil or Lady Bird. Instead, Ferri is more interested in building atmosphere. The vibe of the film is as chilly and hard as the ice hockey court where much of the action takes place, as well as the snowy Apennine surroundings. The latter mountains always loom large on the horizon, trapping these two characters in a place where no one is progressive enough to understand them.
This lack of adherence to coming-of-age narrative conventions results in a plot which meanders, occasionally catching the viewer off-guard by the turns it takes. Meanwhile, you can tell Ferri put a lot of effort into choosing the right spots to put her camera. In key sequences – Vanessa and her boyfriend becoming intimate, a first kiss which turns awkward quickly – it stays deathly still, trapping audiences with the characters in uncomfortable spaces. This is until you watching feel as anxious as they do.
That said, the movie’s measured pace and cold atmosphere does grow slightly monotonous as the story fizzles out to an unsatisfying conclusion. This is particularly frustrating when compared to the punk energy of the movie’s opening. Still, Ferri’s got clear chops as a filmmaker – the way the camera glides following the ice-hockey players, the powerful one-takes, how the sound cuts out during a brief moment of euphoria.
Made with the help of the Biennale College Cinema – a Venice Film Festival initiative aimed at training young filmmakers – Zen in the Ice Rift is the solid calling card movie one makes to land them a better more satisfying second feature.