MUBI UK's latest discovery from Locarno, Davide Maldi's documentary The Young Observant, is a film of strange rituals. I guarantee you will spend its first five minutes wearing a puzzled expression. Why are those middle-aged men measuring that teenage boy's ears, scraping his cheeks with a credit card, instructing him to literally pull his socks up? I know old-school fascism is back on the rise in Europe's dimmer corners, but have the eugenicists made a comeback nobody told us about? Even after Maldi sets out some reassuring context - that the kid, mostly referred to by his surname Tufano, is a student at an elite catering academy, being tested to determine his precision, thus his ability to become a waiter, barman or maître d' - the rituals keep coming. If you're looking for a film to teach you the accepted way to mix a Martini or fritter a banana, you've come to the right place. Yet what's striking is that we can't be sure Tufano has. He's trying hard, as we discern from his earnest answers to a question about the differences between the French and Finnish hotel classification systems. Yet he is, by his very nature, a restless soul, from his unruly shock of auburn hair to his tendency to drift off in his head during class. "People make me sick," he blurts out during one lesson. "I don't like people." You worry he's less likely to pull out a chair for a patron as he is to smash someone about the head with a skillet.
In short, Maldi's film has all the right ingredients for involving non-fiction: it leads us into a rarefied world, identifies someone who seems out of place there, then sets us to wondering whether relentless drilling can convert this malcontent into a willing and able public servant. As the sporadic thump of militaristic drums on the soundtrack underlines, it's really a bootcamp movie, the hospitality sector's equivalent of Full Metal Jacket. In the circumstances, the heart can't help but go out to the rough-edged Tufano, who comes this way as an outsider. Unlike his classmates, all of whom seem to know someone with experience of glass polishing and napkin-straightening, he's a complete novice, a loose amalgamation of raw material of a kind the camera has forever been drawn towards, either because calamity awaits (he's not much use with trays) or because he's so entirely himself, unable to mask his frustration, boredom and resentment. We learn in passing that he lives in the mountains, which possibly explains his vague air of loftiness and resistance to other lifeforms, but also his tenacity, his ongoing, uphill struggle to better himself. There are points where he appears less a documentary subject than a character in a bildungsroman: if Maldi hadn't stumbled across him, someone would have had to make him up.
Some elements of his progress do look to have been constructed or recreated, like an after-hours meander around the academy's corridors, the kid's pocket torch alighting on a taxidermy collection that would be terrifying enough encountered in daylight hours. Yet even that sequence works towards a better understanding of what an odd place this is for a country boy to find himself in: we might consider, as Tufano surely considered, whether the academy's goal isn't to hollow its scholars out and similarly reduce them all to posed, stuffed shirts. Maldi's day-to-day observation is in itself revealing and fascinating. It becomes obvious from around the halfway point that Tufano is better at the hands-on aspects of this career path than he is at the theory, which is why he looks so bored at his schooldesk, and gets so truculent at the white board. (The happiest we see him is when he's pulled out of lessons to wipe down a kitchen door: he says it reminds him of milking cows.) Frame by frame, a once proudly defiant head drops; Maldi shows how potential mishandled can quickly result in a problem case. The conclusion's one of the most ambiguous you'll witness all year, but The Young Observant carries us there with uncommon reserves of human interest, and a subtle philosophical bent. Discipline is all well and good, Maldi knows, but his film also acknowledges that - even within the absurdly specialised field of waiter training - individual students require individualised instruction.
The Young Observant will be available to stream from tomorrow via MUBI UK.