“I Know This Much Is True”: the miniseries’ review

"I Know This Much Is True" is Derek Cianfrance's mini-series masterpiece, released on HBO in the US in 2020 and currently on Now and Sky Atlantic in Italy. An unseen and exciting Mark Ruffalo seeks out his alter ego, and Italian actor Marcello Fonte is also in the cast. This is our review of a series that earned the American actor an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe.

I Know This Much Is True - Mark Ruffalo
I Know This Much Is True - Mark Ruffalo
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I Know This Much Is True, The Plot

Life certainly hasn’t been kind to the Birdsey brothers. Dominick – a.k.a. Domenico – and Thomas (Mark Ruffalo in a double role) are twins, with a difficult childhood and adult life. An abusive stepfather, a biological father they never knew, a mother scarred by past tragic family experiences and illness, the dark figure of their Italian grandfather Domenico Tempesta (Marcello Fonte), and Thomas’s schizophrenia that will stay with him throughout his existence. The first episode opens off strikingly: Thomas is in a library and cuts off his hand with a machete in the grip of a terrible attack, aiming to purge himself of the sins of mankind. In the background, the Gulf War and Saddam Hussein’s ruthless regime. This fact is based on an event that happened in the 1990s to the writer of the homonymous novel, Wally Lamb: Peter Mayock, one of his students, cut off his hand and removed his eye in protest. This event triggers a series of misfortunes or challenging situations involving the main characters, will be engulfed in a whirlwind of profound similarities and apparent differences..

I Know This Much Is True, The Review

“I Know This Much Is True” passed over too quietly upon its release during the pandemic period, considering that it’s a series that leaves its mark to the ones that watch it. It is not a typical television entertainment series, and the Italian translation “Un volto, due destini” (“One face, two destinies”) fails to capture the depth of its themes, giving it a distorted, almost soap opera-like connotation. Derek Cianfrance tells a story of mental illness without filters, discounts, or defenses, just as he recounts the tragic events and intricate relationships of the Birdsey family with a dry, sharp tone. While challenging the viewer’s eyes and heart, a certain threshold of endurance is never exceeded. If we accept these premises and immerse ourselves in its terse and probing, yet reflective atmosphere, we step into the compelling rhythm of the series and increasingly connect with the main characters’ emotions.

I Know This Much Is True - Mark Ruffalo
I Know This Much Is True – Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo

Mark Ruffalo makes a difference

Anyone who has moved by Mark Ruffalo’s performance in Poor Things hasn’t exeperienced this series yet. Mark is an A-list actor who has consistently delivered great performances and evoked deep emotions for a long time. However, this series transcends that. There is something more profound at play here as we’re granted a glimpse into the intimate and private world of the protagonist. Dominick and Thomas are bonded together by an invisible and unbreakable thread, woven from unspoken words and tight hugs. s Dominick reveals in a session with Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi), Thomas has “always been this way, reminding him of what he does wrong”, openly asserting the truth with purity and innocence. No matter how much Dominick may try to establish an ideal boundary between himself and his ill brother, Thomas will remind him that they “are the same thing.”

Thomas and Dominick: two polar extremes, yet…of the same coin

While one destroys himself mentally, the other does so physically, and vice versa: like a game of mirrors, the constant presence and absence of this alter ego – who in another situation would have been Dominick’s perfect sidekick – is manifested for life. Here, Ruffalo displays unparalleled intensity: it takes talent to portray a schizophrenic while staying human and sensitive, for sure, but it takes even more to give a livid and desperate face to a ‘normal’ man overwhelmed by desperation. Thomas and Dominick are both loaded and layered people. In their fraternal relationship there’s duty, sacrifice and there is love. There’s resentment and appreciation, repulsion and attraction. There is so much paradox, two sides to everything. Two polar extremes, yet…of the same coin.

The intensity of Mark’s performance shines through in the close-ups, accentuating his wrinkles and expressions, revealing Scott‘s gentle presence behind this relationship. Scott, his alter ego, is acknowledged in the film’s credits and permeates his life, fueling a tension and perpetual quest that, as revealed in interviews, drives him to seek what he yearns for the most. Dominick’s thoughts directed at Thomas, even after his passing, resonate with deep authenticity conveyed through Mark’s words and silences. When reality eclipses imagination and fiction in acting, one can’t help but be captivated.

I Know This Much Is True - Mark Ruffalo
I Know This Much Is True – Mark Ruffalo

Prisoner conditions in the U.S. and Italy

This series goes on addressing other very important issues, such as prison conditions for inmates, even more problematic for people suffering from mental illness. As the prison population increased nationwide in the 1990s, when the series takes place, conditions worsened steadily in U.S. prisons and regulators made it increasingly difficult for inmates to file and win civil rights lawsuits. In recounting the mistreatment of Thomas and Dominick’s desperate feeling of helplessness, Cianfrance harshly depicts a very present-day reality. Today, U.S. prisons house a disproportionate number of people with mental health issues – about one in four inmates according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. As a result, facilities hardly meet the demand for treatment for an overall 70 percent of inmates in State or Federal prisons. Police are also used in this regard to respond to mental health crises, and their involvement often results in physical and verbal violence. In Italy, the situation doesn’t seem to be any different. According to the latest Antigone Report 9.2 percent of our 65,000 inmates suffer from very serious mental disorders and a prison suicide occurs every three days. Recent news has surfaced regarding the conviction of certain prison officers for the violent beating of two inmates. The Italian film “Sulla mia pelle” starring Alessandro Borghi, about the life of Stefano Cucchi, should have given us some lessons.

I Know This Much Is True - Mark Ruffalo
I Know This Much Is True – Mark Ruffalo

Thomas’s character compels the viewer to delve into the concept of mental illness

It’s also quite remarkable how hints of the screenplay reveal another important theme: the identity of Thomas’s illness. During a conversation with his psychologist, Dominick expresses his reluctance for his brother to be further affected by the medication he is compelled to take. The rejection of the purely “organic” and scientific solution to the disease brings us back to the relevant concept of relationship. Dominick wants to set Thomas free from the judicial institution he is confined in as he senses the importance of restoring to his brother the warmth of a familiar embrace and nurturing relationships. While he is the first to avoid openness to others, and even if he is the first to give himself alternative explanations to escape his own emotions or responsibilities, he will eventually come to understand that the path ahead is not the easy one. It is, though, the path of psychological care, forgiveness, and separation.

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Sicily and going back to origins

In the final three episodes, we’re deeply moved by the portrayal of the fictitious maternal grandfather, Domenico Tempesta, whose name Dominick shares. It’s intriguing to note the connection with the main actor’s own family background, as his grandfather hails from southern Italy, specifically Calabria. Italy holds a profound emotional resonance for the American actor.

As Dominick takes us through the manuscript, we’re transported on a journey to Sicily, immersed in its rich flavors, music, and the compelling narrative of Italian immigrants seeking fortune in America. The inclusion of the Sicilian dialect adds authenticity to the story, and the performances by Marcello Fonte and other Italian actors are remarkable.

I Know This Much Is True - Marcello Fonte
I Know This Much Is True – Marcello Fonte

The portrayal of the grandfather character embodies the weight of cultural heritage and a complex familial legacy, with which Dominick grapples entirely. He wrestles with the fear of inheriting his grandfather’s traits: the weakness, violence, and ignorance that may lurk within him. The looming curse over his family only adds to his anxiety. In this, Dominick reflects a common mindset of old Italian traditions. However, his newfound love for his ex-wife Dessa, the arrival of two newborn babies symbolizing rebirth, and the forgiveness he ultimately grants himself, gradually bring him back to reality.

The series finale leaves Dominick’s future open-ended, just as we’ll do by leaving you with the lyrics of a Foo Fighters song:

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“I’ve got another confession to make, I’m your fool. Everyone’s got their chains to break, holding you. Were you born to resist or be abused? I was too weak to give in, too strong to lose. Is someone getting the best of you?”

I Know This Much Is True, The Cast

  • Dominick e Thomas Birdsey: Mark Ruffalo 
  • Dominick e Thomas Birdsey (young): Philip Ettinger 
  • Concettina “Ma” Ippolita Tempesta Birdsey: Melissa Leo
  • Ray Birdsey: John Procaccino
  • Leo: Rob Huebel
  • Nedra Frank: Juliette Lewis
  • Dessa Constantine: Kathryn Hahn 
  • Dessa Constantine (young): Aisling Franciosi 
  • Lisa Sheffer: Rosie O’Donnell
  • Dott.ssa Rubina Patel, interpretata da Archie Panjabi
  • Domenico Onofrio Tempesta: Marcello Fonte
  • Ralph Drinkwater: Michael Greyeyes
  • Joy Hanks: Imogen Poots
  • Shawn Tudesco: Gabe Fazio
  • Dott. Hume: Bruce Greenwood
  • Padre LaVie: Harris Yulin

I Know This Much Is True, Official Trailer

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