Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 21, 2010 10:43 pm 
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Mehmet Gunsur and Alessandro Gassman in The Turkish Bath

Titillation and coziness from a Turkish-born Italian director

Since San Francisco's 2010 New Italian Cinema series featured a partial retrospective of Ferzan Özpetek (four of his eight features), a review of this Turkish-born director of Italian films, also partial, is in order.

Özpetek's atmospheric first feature as an independent director, an Italian production with Italian main characters but set mostly in Turkey, introduces a primary theme of his, the family outside the family. An Italian goes to see what remains when a Turkish-resident aunt dies, and becomes close to the family that took care of her during her last days. Turkey in a sense also becomes his second home and family, as he discovers in Istanbul something warmer than squabbling with his wife over their Naples decorating business. A married decorator? Yes, he turns out to be gay -- a surprise only to him when the central theme is a Turkish bath, with its homoerotic associations. In future the director will have gay characters who don't have to go to an exotic land, or into a Turkish bath, to discover their sexuality. It is just as well that Özpetek stopped resorting to that arbitrary and unconvincing geographical solution. The scenes in the bath, indeed the casting of the indubitably sexy but inexpressive younger Gassman, are a matter of gay fantasy. (A largely forgotten second film, the 1999 Harem Suaré, is an elaborate costume fantasy set mostly in the days of the Ottoman sultans. That wasn't a train worth working further either.)

In later films, Özpetek has perhaps wisely exchanged titillation for coziness. Thus the down-to-earth gay character played by Stefano Accorsi in the director's first movie made fully in Italy, His Secret Life (2001), replaces the cold, emotionally one-note performance (and role) of Gassman in Steam. As a gay director working in a homophobic Catholic country, Özpetek has shown courage in dealing consistently with gay themes and characters in his films, but he has also avoided overt sexuality or stories that might otherwise shock. He has not faced the kind of social violence or grown up with the kind of bi-cultural sophistication evident in the German-born Turkish director Fatih Akin, whose work is both bolder and more significant.

In a very positive introduction to the director on the occasion of a mid-career 2008 MoMA retrospective, Eliott Stein wrote in the Voice that Özpetek "left home as a teenager to study film history in Rome and entered the industry in 1982 as an assistant to Massimo Troisi (Il Postino). He went on to work with Lamberto Bava and Ricky Tognazzi, then, in 1997, made the leap to directing his own features with Steam: The Turkish Bath, which turned out to be both a critical and commercial success. His oeuvre has been marked by a masterful handling of actors, often in densely populated ensemble stories involving characters from different backgrounds and sexual preferences. Clearly a movie nut, he has been instrumental in bringing former stars of the golden age of Italian cinema back to the big screen in significant roles."

Stein is good at bringing out this vaguely Tarantino-like function of reviving careers. Thus he describes the direcotor's first fully formed work, La finestra di fronte: "Facing Windows (2003), Özpetek's most affecting and complex work to date, links a pair of illicit romances—one gay, one straight; one set in the present, the other dating from World War II and kept alive in a faltering memory. It's particularly notable for the work of Massimo Girotti (the best-looking leading man of his generation, who starred in films of Visconti, Pasolini, and Antonioni) as an elderly survivor of the Nazi death camps. Girotti never got to see his superb last performance—he died before the picture was released. Stein laments that Özpetek's A Perfect Day (2008), not written by him and from a novel, gets bogged down in loud music and minor characters who don't fit in.

It remains to be said that while all this is very well, Özpetek's rise to some prominence as a director in Italy comes at a time when Italian cinema is at a pretty low ebb, and his fluidity in ensemble work with actors doesn't quite make up for a weakness for arbitrary and unconvincing plot devices. These are evident right from the start when, in The Turkish Bath, he provides the death of an aunt as a simple way to get his handsome son of a famous Italian actor (Vittorio Gassman, of course) over to his own native Turkey, and then twists things more than a little bit to get Gassman Jr's testy wife over and mellow her into a devotee of things Turkish. In choosing to feature Ferzan Özpetek over a more important and challenging Italian director like Gabriele Salvatores (whose recent films were shown currently in Seattle), San Francisco has made a decision whose logic is best known to themselves. The bigger summer New York Italian series, Open Roads (Jun. 3-10, 2010), included new films by Salvatores, Francesca Comenncini, Carlo Verdone and Gabriele Muccino (those two aren't challenging directors, but they are culturally relevant and entertaining ones). The concurrent Seattle New Italian Cinema series (Nov. 16-20, 2010) had a similar program otherwise, but instead featured Salvatores.

The two outstanding selections of the 2010 San Francisco New Italian Cinema series were two first films, Valerio Mieli's elegant, low-keyed almost-love story Ten Winters and Giuseppe Capotondi's excellent psychological thriller, The Double Hour.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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