Fifteen years ago in Italy a strange incident occurred that has not been adequately explained to this day, involving a young girl named Francesca who disappeared after an attack in her home that left her father paralysed. But she had a dark side of her own even before the kidnapping, as seen when she apparently stabbed a baby in its crib as part of a misguided game she had been playing with her doll - could the abduction be part of a revenge against her that was successful in that nobody ever saw the girl again? All this time later, a murder has taken place that may have a connection to the crime, but who is the killer, with their bizarre modus operandi - and just what is that connection?
The predilection for pastiche in twenty-first century horror was one of the genre's defining traits once the third millennium had arrived, and filmmakers with big budgets and (perhaps more often) small set about producing tributes to the sort of chiller they grew up watching, all the way from silent movies to items more recent, though probably not much past 1990. The director of Francesca, Luciano Onetti (who penned the screenplay with his brother Nicolás Onetti) was evidently much taken with those vintage Italian thrillers with a macabre twist, the giallo, as here he set out to recreate their atmosphere and look, if not pay much attention to having that plot make tremendous sense.
In that vein, he had been beaten to the punch by a film from a few years before his, Amer, which was followed by The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears, both of which were, it had to be admitted, more impressive both visually and stylistically than what Onetti concocted. He had tried out the pastiche before with Deep Sleep, an even briefer experience of a couple of years previous, though Francesca was not exactly an epic, done and dusted after a lengthy titles sequence and a substantial credits sequence, and not lasting much more than an hour without taking those into account. Fair enough, keep things brisk and say what you want to say succinctly as possible, but the effect was skimpy.
Although clearly shot on digital video, Onetti treated his imagery for an aged appearance that would be faithful to the old favourites he wished to invoke, though the effect was more like watching a poor quality VHS than a few reels of celluloid that you had found in an attic thanks to the treatment offering a harsh texture rather than the lusher one that many of these originals would enjoy - no matter how shoddy the thriller elements, quite often these movies were very well photographed, slick and glossy in contrast to their narrative nastiness. Here, however, the director too often let is arthouse sensibilities get in the way of what could have been a perfectly fair giallo copy, going off on dreamlike tangents, or more accurately nightmarish ones, when a better grasp of what the hell was going on would have been preferable.
The ending, for instance, where the killer was revealed, would more likely have the average viewer wondering, wait a second, who on earth was that supposed to be? Not a good sign when the whole storyline led up to what was, in the sources, a would-be shocking revelation, and what was on offer here was murky at best. Onetti was obviously enthusiastic about his fright sequences, but his lack of funds often betrayed his ambitions, with the result that what would have been operatic in concept wound up a little cheap when realised for the camera. An Argentinian who had fallen in love with the idea of giallo, he had employed a selection of Italian actors (nobody very famous) and had them speak in their native tongue for that extra note of conviction, with the dialogue dubbed over to sound authentic, yet the sense of an exercise, and a rather arch one at that, never left it. It was plain Onetti had talent, but with this entry he needed another go at refining it, merely suggesting a patina of pretension was not enough to escape it in actuality.