Rosario Russo (Servillo) is living near Frankfurt where he runs a restaurant and hotel and has integrated perfectly into the local community with his family. He keeps a low profile, he has changed his name and he speaks German. Life is good, until one day the introverted Diego (Marco D'Amore) and street-smart Edoardo (Francesco Di Leva) turn up at the hotel, looking for a room. Soon their sinister assignment is revealed, dragging Rosario back into the past.

A masterful exercise in cinematic restraint.

ITALIAN FILM FESTIVAL: A menacing figure or pair arrives to disrupt a quiet domestic setting. The scenario is familiar, and if handled well, can be devastatingly effective: witness Harold Pinter’s classic play, The Homecoming, or more recently, Jonathan Glazer’s film, Sexy Beast.

Italian writer-director Claudio Cupellini makes effective use of this device in his second feature, a terrific psychological thriller packed with dynamite just waiting to go off any second.

In a wooded spot outside Frankfurt, Italian chef Rosario (Toni Servillo) runs a busy kitchen in a hotel he owns and manages with his German wife Renate (Juliane Köhler). When two muscle-bound and nervous young Italian men turn up on his doorstep, Rosario strives to hide his discomfort from Renate. It soon becomes obvious one of the pair, Diego (Marco D'Amore), is no stranger to him. Precisely what their relationship is takes a while to emerge, though most viewers will guess quickly.

Also taking time to become clear is Rosario’s motivation in lying to his wife about his relationship to Diego. The reason, when it emerges, is a powerful one. The same mystery surrounds the exact nature of the illegal operation the two young men have arrived in Germany to execute, a mission that Rosario knows nothing about. That it turns out to be connected with the waste disposal business will ring alarm bells for fans of The Sopranos or anyone who saw Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone’s 2008 film about the Camorra – the Neapolitan mafia. Clearly big trouble is brewing, the tension so thick you could wedge the door with it.

That the film takes its time in revealing its protagonist’s dark past, among other critical detail, is to its considerable credit, resulting in a film that grips from the start by forcing viewers to lean forward to make their own deductions.

The screenplay (by director Claudio Cupellini with Filippo Gravino and Guido Iuculano) is not only a model of how to build tension and character by the careful parceling out of exposition, but it’s matched by Cupellini’s direction. This is only his second feature yet through most of it he exerts a masterful control of the material, evident early on with a complex Steadicam sequence through the hotel kitchen clearly inspired by Scorsese’s Goodfellas though with its own logic. The remaining camerawork is less flashy but places the audience exactly where it needs to be at all times.

That’s not to say the film is perfect. The viewer is asked to accept that Diego and his partner’s mission just happens to be in the same German town where Rosario lives – an unlikely coincidence – and Cupellini annoyingly fudges a climactic action sequence, making the film’s denouement less powerful than it might have been.

Fortunately Cupellini’s strength lies in the building of tension, subtle details of characterisation, and the use of dramatically fruitful complications, such as an affair one of the two younger men undertakes with one of the restaurant’s waitresses.

Emblematic of A Quiet Life’s attention to its characters is the complex portrayal of Rosario’s wife, Renate. (Köhler will be familiar to many viewers as Eva Braun in Downfall and the protagonist of Nowhere in Africa.) Initially a martinet barking orders to the staff and her husband, she reveals surprising vulnerabilities as her 'quiet life’ is rocked. But the two key performers are Servillo and D’Amore. The former underplays to powerful effect as a man constantly having to keep calm and think on his feet where the temptation is to panic, the latter eloquent in expressing a tough guy’s uncertainty and inner hurt.