For a stretch in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Valeria Golino enjoyed some success in Hollywood as an exotically gorgeous yet spritely, good-humored second fiddle in movies like Rain Man, Big Top Pee-wee, and the Hot Shots! parodies, which included a 9 1/2 Weeks-inspired scene where Charlie Sheen finds her so hot, he fries up bacon and eggs on her bared midriff. Now two decades later, after a long retreat into Italian movies that haven’t often surfaced abroad, Golino has made her feature directorial debut with Honey (Miele), which seems partly like an attempt at restitution for her younger self. Looking uncannily like a Valeria Golino type, superb lead actor Jasmine Trinca is given the sort of end-to-end lead role that eluded Golino at the peak of her acting career. It isn’t hard to imagine the director slipping into the role herself.
Honey takes euthanasia as its subject, but Golino isn’t terribly interested in the politics of assisted suicide, which is mostly a virtue for the film. The moral and legal implications surface only insofar as they affect the stability of a woman committed to helping people end their lives humanely, and on their terms. Trinca stars as Irene, a soft-spoken, deeply introspective loner who has a lover (Vinicio Marchioni) on the side, but keeps him and everyone else at arm’s length. Working unofficially for a doctor (Libero De Rienzo) who shares her beliefs, Irene travels from Rome to Mexico every month—often taking tour buses over the U.S.-Mexico border to avoid suspicion—to score a powerful veterinary barbiturate that’s unavailable in Italian pharmacies. (It’s meant to put down dogs, but does the trick for humans.) Irene is thrown into crisis when one older client, Grimaldi (Carlo Cecchi), gets the drug from her, then reveals he’s actually perfectly healthy, just tired of being alive.
Irene being confronted with a case that exploits her service so grotesquely may sound like the stuff of an anti-euthanasia screed, a demonstration of what happens when a life led on shaky moral ground caves in completely. But that isn’t Golino’s position. Though Irene and Grimaldi’s relationship has deception as its starting point, it grows from there into a deeper consideration of life, and the types of pain that aren’t physical. Honey leaves the impression that the issue of euthanasia is complicated, and human beings are more so. Its small achievement is in trying to understand the life-and-death choices of two people who aren’t as certain about what they’re doing as they initially appear.
As a director, Golino turns out to be smart, stylish, and detail-oriented, with a strategy of staying close to her enigmatic heroine, and finding ways to use the frame to express Irene’s predicament. (She also has excellent musical taste: Talking Heads, The Shins, Thom Yorke, Shearwater, and others are piped through Irene’s ever-present earbuds, telling stories of their own.) When Irene stands a few feet away from a client’s bed, Golino tucks her into the corner of the frame, present for the administration of the lethal cocktail, but not entirely present. Is she the Angel Of Death, or the Grim Reaper? That’s the question she—and Honey—are trying to sort out.