Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 10, 2003 12:53 pm 
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Visions of a haunted, disquieting Italy

Matteo Garrone’s “The Embalmer” (L’Imbalsamatore) evokes a troubling Diane Arbus Italy that’s Fellini without the charm, Antonioni without the chic angst. (Clearly, it’s just pure Garrone.) This moody, compelling film focuses (to add one more famous filmmaker name) on a Fassbinder relationship of hopeless repressed gay love. The desolate coastal spaces of the Campania region and the foggy inland environs of Cremona blend with a haunting jazz soundtrack to evoke an earlier story of gay awakening and desperation, Patrice Chéreau’s desire-ridden early film, L’Homme Blessé (1983).

You can argue whether L’Imbalsamatore is film noir: it’s based on a police blotter item about a deadly Roman love triangle and has gangland crime, double-crosses and a femme fatale, but Garrone has created a slow, creepy character study that leads through initially cheery but off-kilter events into more flesh-crawling developments that drift into final sudden violence. It’s been called homophobic, and indeed the gay person isn’t stable or admirable: he’s a lonely dwarf with a hopeless concealed passion and crafty subterfuges that lead into spooky delusions. But the movie isn’t so much about sexuality at all as about repressed desire and confused intentions.

To bring yet another director into play in discussing this wholly original movie, the dwarf suggests David Lynch and some of the interiors and their lighting indeed suggest a southern Italian Blue Velvet.

Peppino, a little fifty-ish taxidermist, finds handsome, naive young Valerio in the Naples zoo and lures him, by offering an inflated salary, into giving up his job as a cook and becoming his apprentice. (Picture the extra-tall Valerio walking next to tiny squat Peppino: that’s Diane Arbus.) Peppino has extra dough because he moonlights for the Mafia sewing drugs into corpses. The sweet Valerio likes learning about taxidermy and is too good natured and simple to see the hidden nature of Peppino’s interest. though even Peppino's Mafia boss sees it and warns Peppino of its danger. To justify being close to Valerio in bed Peppino arranges joint orgies with call girls. That keeps Valerio out too late and his brother kicks him out of the house, so he moves in with Peppino. Peppino hides his Mafia work from Valerio too, even when he takes him along on a Mafia job in Cremona.

There Valerio meets Deborah, a volatile young woman with surgically enhanced lips, and he and she trick Peppino into taking her along when they return home. For a while the three play around together and Deborah dresses Valerio in a nightgown and puts lipstick on Peppino. Eventually Valerio wants to move out and live with Deborah, who's now pregnant with their child, and that doesn’t suit Peppino at all. Though Valerio remains ambivalent to the end, Peppino and Deborah grow too sour toward each other for the triangle to continue. The young couple goes off to Cremona to get jobs and live with Deborah’s parents and wait for the child to be born. Peppino eventually comes after them and stalks Valerio, introducing himself to the parents as Valerio’s “uncle.” Ernesto Manieux as Peppino exhibits a bottomless, maniacal charm throughout that is both smooth and menacing. Valerio Foglia Manzillo as Valerio is so tall and so athletically handsome that he seems peculiar too, especially in constant proximity to Manieux.

L’Imbalsamatore is about transformation and confusion. Sometimes Peppino is seen from far below and seems gigantic. He’s physically unattractive and can be creepy but he's also charming, sociable and charismatic. Valerio goes from cook to taxidermist to waiter. He is a devastating seducer or childlike waif: his powerful physique is dangerous because the brain is unfocused. He's putty in the hands of Peppino. There’s something of “Mice and Men’s” Lennie in him, which comes out toward the end. Peppino’s stature limits him, but he manipulates what power he has with consumate skill. Right at the end, in Cremona, he lures Valerio away from Deborah, gets him drunk, and tempts him to run off – where? To Cuba or Africa; Peppino has him mesmerized into wanting to escape Cremona's landlocked fogs and go off with him almost anywhere to get away from the monkey-suit uniform he wears at a hotel, the constricting responsibilities of fatherhood, and the generally stifling bourgeois scene at Deborah’s family’s house, symbolized by crunching the identical piece of toast every morning across the table from her father, with the mother coming like clockwork to pour the coffee and milk from two opposing kettles.

Garrone’s Italy is a haunted place, drab and commonplace yet unlike any other. His scenes, which use a lot of ultra close-ups of the faces, are uniformly compelling: the dangerous tensions of the love triangle keep them focused. The various sequences in which Peppino tries to become intimate with Valerio skirt the edge between jaunty and flesh-crawly. The dialogue seems hasty, natural, improvised (unlike traditional Italian films, this has a live sound track with no post-dubbing). It gives a sense of convincing lies, mindless formulas that just get by or seem calming but cause confusion, mimicking an understanding that is not there. Background sounds are skillfully and subtly used. One has the sense of being in the hands of an exceptionally original director who knows well how to use the rituals and longeurs of Italian life to his own special storytelling ends.

In the disquieting, manic final sequence Peppino wields a huge pistol which he talks about as if it were an unmanageable, unpredictable woman. His desperation has made him deranged and dangerous but Valerio also seems to have gone very quietly and therefore more frighteningly crazy. The ending is stunning but inevitable.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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