Set in Milan, Italy and lyrically scored to match its poignancy, Giuseppe Piccioni's Not of this World (Fuori dal mondo) paints memorable portraits of two adults at a crossroads, brought together by an abandoned baby. The leisurely paced 100 minute film may not appeal to American action and special effects addicts, but Piccioni's humanistic story feels like a character study about real people.
Initially disjointedly structured along the lines of Pulp Fiction (without the trendy violence and sardonic wit), the film evolves into a slowly-paced spiritual study more along the lines of Babette's Feast. Piccioni's camera follows Sister Caterina (Margherita Buy), who has just eleven months before taking her final vows, and assorted workers at a laundry before focussing more on its forty-on--year old melancholy workaholic bachelor owner, Ernesto (Silvio Orlando). Daily routines predominate—prayer, counsel with Mother Superior, and seeking to do good works make up Caterina's lifestyle, while Ernesto goes through the paces at his laundry with customers who fail to pay the bills and workers who gossip behind his back. This all changes when a distressed jogger thrusts a baby boy into Caterina's arms and pleads with her to take care of it.
After delivering the baby to the hospital, Caterina finds that unknown maternal instincts draw her irresistibly back to check on the five-day old boy, and she decides to seek the unknown mother to counsel her. The sweater that wrapped the baby leads her to Ernesto's laundry, where the owner recognizes the identity of the secretive mother and suspects that he could be the unknown father. Although resolution to the plot's dilemmas is reached, this pales in significance to the greatest values of Piccioni's film.
Both Sister Caterina and Ernesto face life changing crises in their chosen vocations that ironically are brought to the surface by the abandoned baby. Initially Caterina is taking Spanish lessons in preparation for service to Columbia, a spot that her Mother Superior knowingly cites as a place for idealists—for women attempting sainthood. And she questions whether Caterina is really ready for that. Of course, Caterina is convinced that she is destined for the impoverished regions of South America, as her prime motivator is a strong desire to help people. But the baby and her attachment to it brings this into question, and both her Mother Superior and Ernesto question her fitness. "What kind of nun are you?" queries Ernesto when she coldly rebuffs him after he confesses that he could be the father of the child.
Before this, lonely Ernesto clearly has more than counseling and platonic love in mind when he seeks out the sister. He asks her whether she's ever had a man before. Although shocked, she answers that she once had a lover but that her love and devotion to Christ are a much greater order and priority—her eyes, however, subtly communicate her unsteadiness. This complex requirement that nuns both be loving and detached gives the film its title—how fine the line is to be "not of this world."
Throwing metaphysics away for practical matters, Piccioni crafts a practical universe for his characters, who not so much act their roles, but actually become these tortured people. Reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve's understated performances, Buy infuses believable realism and tenderness into Caterina when she considers her spiritual quandry. Orlando quietly slips into his melancholy existence naturally, and the details of his behavior capture his uncertainty perfectly—from the embarrassment of a restaurant exchange with another lonely hearts candidate to his awkward eagerness to find out what his laundry workers have been saying about him.
As wonderful as the acting performances are, the musical score enhances the mood impeccably and the photography is truly stunning�the opening sequence showing a surrealistic closeup of a marble statue while a nun prays to the Virgin Mary alone prepares the cinematic artistry to come. Location shooting in Milan adds to the realism, and the variety of shots makes the languid pacing inconsequential—it's the two lead characters that we grow to care about, and where the baby ends up is irrelevant by the end.
Not of This World will ring true for anyone who has ever doubted his/her life direction and for those who have ever fantasized about different choices. So that would be just about everyone—unless you're the kind of movie watcher that wants to forget reality and be entertained with inane material, escapist drama, and dazzling special effects. For an unpretentious film that practically explores meaning of life issues, this ranks among the very best.