Honey is a character-driven thriller about a young woman who falls into an ethical quandary that she resents. I use the term “thriller” loosely since writer/director Valeria Golino keeps a measured distance from her subjects, an approach that invites more thought than suspense. The ethical quandary is doozy, one that would create high drama in an American film, but since everyone is Italian they are able to put their impasse on hold in favor of a good meal and a glass of wine. There is a satisfactory resolution, one that has important implications of how we think about end of life care, and Golino has the confidence to let her audience sort out their own feelings about it.
Irene (Jasmine Trinca) is a high-end drug dealer with a conscience. Instead of smuggling cocaine or some other illicit substance, she travels to Mexico for strong animal barbiturates. Her plan is to use them on ailing men and women who prefer euthanasia over the indignity of a painful death. In the opening scene, she coaches an elderly couple how to administer the cocktail and is firm that the grieving husband cannot touch the glass of deadly drugs once his wife drinks them (the scene would not look like a suicide otherwise). Golino films the scene with all three people in the frame and Irene in the corner, and her small hand gestures suggest a depth of feeling she wants to hide.
Her handler is Rocco (Libero De Rienzo), a doctor who shares Irene’s empathy, and he sets up a meeting with her and Carlo (Carlo Cecchi), a peculiar misanthrope with a sense of humor. Carlo violates Irene’s code in a fundamental way – he’s not on the brink of death, he just wants to kill herself – so she abandons her stoic demeanor and lashes out at him. Once she realizes that approach won’t work, she cools down and gets to know Carlo better. They even like each other, albeit in a platonic way, and she tells him her first name (all her clients know her as “Miele,” the Italian word for “honey,” hence the title). Once she opens up a little, the other aspects of Irene’s humble life spin out of control.
Golino’s approach is twofold: she shows the particulars of Irene’s job, including her regular trips to Mexico, and provides little hints about why she prefers to distance herself from society. The cause is not exactly revolutionary, yet Golino’s direction has enough tact so it’s satisfying to figure out. No character every fully explains themselves, which forces the viewer to fill in the missing holes.
The only direct conversation happens between Irene and Carlo at the film’s midpoint. They push each other about the ethics of euthanasia – he argues that she has no right to decide who gets to die and when, while she insists he has to right to burden her conscience – yet neither party refuses to accept the other’s side. They tolerate different viewpoints only during their non-sequitur conversation, and they’re good company because they have so much in common. He’s bored by everyone and everythingx, and she has no patience for everyday relationships. Irene does have a lover (Vinicio Marchioni), but he’s filling a biological need more than anything else.
Through a clinical distance, Golino creates an intriguing sense of realism. She develops Irene through ritual: there are several scenes where she rides her bike through her beach town while her iPod always plays indie rock (the soundtrack is terrific), and the scenes where she swims in the cold Mediterranean are an indirect way to suggest that she’s stubborn. Carlo tests her composure, of course, as does a suffering young man who literally cannot articulate the depths of his pain. Still, Honey loses its command of tone when it strays away from everyday life in favor of melodrama. There is a subplot where Irene grows increasingly sick, and adds to much context into her overall motivation. There are several flashbacks with young Irene and her long-dead mother, as if we did not already get the picture when she talks about with her such resigned melancholy. In a film where the characters are uniformly reserved and introspective, superfluous subtext takes away from its power.
When Irene confronts Carlo about his desire for death, his response provokes an existential crisis. There’s not all that much difference between Irene’s job and a hit-man, except an assassin’s target is (usually) different than the person who arranges the job. There is an important message here about the rationale of suicide, as well as society’s need to preserve life. Molino’s characters are symbols of dignity and self-determination, although they’re governed by much more than that. Honey circles around nothing less than the meaning of death, finding a satisfying answer alongside a moment of mutual understanding and respect.