More than just a topical issue movie cashing in on recent scandals, “The Medicine Seller” is a taut, stylish drama that addresses shady practices in the pharmaceutical industry. Enriched by standout performances, an overall tight script and editing that expertly drives the tension forward, this sophomore effort from director Antonio Morabito (“Cecilia”) marks a leap forward and should announce him as a helmer to watch. Local rollout still hasn’t been fixed, though the pic is a natural for Italo showcases and could even see Euro theatrical play if critical support is strong enough to get it noticed.
Recent accusations that GlaxoSmithKline, among other companies, regularly bribed doctors and hospitals to prescribe (and often over-prescribe) its brand of pills add a layer of verisimilitude, reinforced by just enough clinical detail to make “The Medicine Seller” feel very real. Bruno (Claudio Santamaria) is a drug salesman for ultracompetitive pharmaceutical giant Zafer. His sales team is headed by Giorgia (Isabella Ferrari), a flinty battle ax who constantly goads her workers on to bigger profits. Impossible goals are enforced and humiliation freely dished out, and not even the suicide of Bruno’s colleague Fabio (Leonardo Nigro) ruffles Giorgia’s steely resolve.
If there’s a major flaw here, it’s the unexplained evolution of Bruno from a decent veterinary science major with a lovely schoolteacher wife, Anna (Evita Ciri), to an amoral huckster who doesn’t think twice about bribing docs with iPads or paid trips. He was probably even sleeping with Dr. Lidia Miceli (Alessia Barela), so she’d claim prescriptions for deceased patients. Everything for a profit, and anything to please the suits.
Giorgia herself is under pressure from the guys upstairs to boost revenue or lay off staff. She tells Bruno he’s got to get big-shot oncologist Malinverni (Marco Travaglio) on board selling Zafer’s cancer meds, even though everyone knows they’re obsolete. The doctor humiliatingly dismisses Bruno’s sales pitch, forcing the drug rep to dig up dirt on Malinverni so he can be blackmailed into coming around. Meanwhile, at home, Anna’s gone off the pill, much against Bruno’s wishes.
The script nicely balances Bruno’s professional and personal lives, building palpable tension in each sector as drive shifts to desperation. “The Medicine Seller” doesn’t damn just the pharmaceutical industry, but also the whole corporate mentality that places profit above human decency, and while it isn’t adding much to a discussion fairly well covered in cinema, the message is handsomely packaged and well worth repeating. From the callousness of a sales team literally playing with life and death, to the blitheness with which medical professionals can be coaxed into dropping their Hippocratic oaths, Morabito serves up a gripping, disturbing take on venality, even if Bruno’s ultimate abandonment of any moral core is hard to fathom.
Santamaria delivers an expertly multi-dimensional perf, mastering the character’s edginess as pressures ratchet up anxiety levels to the point where stress has him trembling. Only with Anna does he relax, at least at the start, and the interplay between the well-established Santamaria and the relatively unknown Ciri has a natural warmth, making them a very believable and sympathetic couple. Ferrari, too, is in her element, frightening as the seemingly soulless Giorgia, yet a real person — compromised, miserable — beneath the armor.
Visuals tend towards icy blues and grays, with lighting that alternates between the cold illumination of day and a shadowy moodiness enhancing the sense of hidden secrets both personal and corporate. Music is judiciously used without over-pushing.