Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 26, 2011 3:31 pm 
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Male bonding goes awry

From Ricky Tognazzi, prolific son of famous Italian film actor Ugo Tognazzt (who won the Best Actor award at Cannes in 1981), comes this movie about male bonding and handicapped children that for some reason morphs into a halfhearted stab at a crime thriller, or at least that's how the genre-mixing feels in this too-many-cooks adaptation of a novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo (Einaudi, 1997); another of De Cataldo's novels was the basis for Michele Placido's 2005 directing debut, Romanzo criminale. Tognazzi has been good before at handling male friendship, but the botched screenplay buries that skill. Like his father, Ricky Tognazzi has done more acting than directing, and this is the first feature he's directed in seven years. De Cataldo collaborated on the screenplay; it hasn't helped much.

Here, the handsome, troubled-looking Alessandro Gassman again plays a man attracted by the Near East, as he did fourteen years ago in Ferzan Özpetek's debut Steam: The Turkish Bath (1997). This time it's a warm-hearted Syrian Arab man called Walid (Amr Waked), apparently some sort of businessman, who draws him in and impresses with a deep love and compassion for his handicapped baby that Diego (Gassman) can't muster for his own disabled son. The two men meet by sharing a smoke at a center where their children are being treated and Walid's selfless love for his child is later evident. ( Later, they share intimate secrets in a steam bath, recalling scenes in Pamuk's film, but without the homoerotic element.) Diego, a fidgety government functionary, is uneasy around his child Giacomino (Leonardo Della Bianca) and jealous about the way his wife Lisa (Kseniya Rappoport) achieves moral superiority by monopolizing their son's care. She soothes and adores the child, while Diego sits in another room feeling uneasy glancing in a document his new friend Walid has unintentionally dropped in the courtyard where the met.

The connection between the two men linked by their handicapped sons is strongly established (too bad it fades later as the focus shifts). Within twenty minutes it's also established that the charming, friendly, and much calmer Walid's involved in fishy business. Walid tools around in a small chaufeured Audi, and sends an Arab babe called Zaira (Lebanese director Nadine Labaki) to sweep Diego off on an unscheduled trip to the Middle East. Diego gets willingly dragged off by his super-rich friend to various exotic and mysterious affairs and celebrations. Tognozzi does his exotic orientalist mumbo-jumbo well enough. It's all mysterious. Eventually Walid, who isn't really Walid, vanishes into thin air, and the authorities come to Diego for help in finding him.

But through all this, as the interesting parents of handicapped children drama gets swept off and turned into a fancy photo exhibit by Diego's wife Lisa, it all becomes a muddle. The filmmakers in adopting this novel needed to do some juggling that involves keeping some very different balls in the air, and it fails. As one Italian reviewer wrote, it's as if there were trying to meld Gianni Amelio's The Keys to the House with Tony Scott's Enemy of the State. I like Gassman here. He's a little like Joseph Cotton in The Third Man, the good chap drawn into malfeasance he can't understand, but sterling and able to stand his ground. Graham Greene might have whipped this screenplay into shape. Unfortunately he wasn't available.

This film seems a throwback to the days when all Italian movies were dubbed. You can see lips moving out of sink, especially in the case of Amr Waked. Waked, who is well known in his native Egypt and appeared in Yousry Nasrallah's Felliniesque The Aquarium, and deserves better. So does everybody in this polished production with its handsome use of both Italian and Middle Eastern locations.

Written by Ricky Tognazzi, Giancarlo De Cataldo, Simona Izzo, Graziano Diana. Cinematography by John Canevari. Editor: Carla Simoncelli. Set Design: Mariangela Capuano. 110 min. Released in Italy February 18, 2010. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series presented at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinema Nov. 13-20, 2011. This was the film's North American premiere.

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