Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 14, 2015 5:38 pm 
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TV host drawn back to the roots of theater by his father's demise

Giorgio Pasotti may not be quite a leading man, but there's something undeniably sexy about him. And he's had an interesting life outside acting, having so excelled in martial arts as a youth he studied them in China as a teenager and lingered to play in wu xia films there, then returned as a sportsman to Italy. His story has parallels with that of Mark Salzman, who studied Chinese and martial arts in China, and played himself in a film made from his autobiographical book about his experiences, Iron and Silk. Salzman and Pasotti were both in China around the same time, in the late Eighties, Only after costarring in Muccino's successful The Last Kiss did Pasotti declare himself an actor. Now at forty-two, Pasotti has costarred in a new movie that he also directed, in collaboration with Matteo Bini, called I, Harleuin/Io, Arlequino.

I, Harlequin is about Paolo (Pasotti), an actor with a successful but essentially mediocre career as a TV show host who returns to his native Bergamo, near Milan (Pasotti's actual home town) to be with his dying father, Giovanni (Roberto Herlitzka). This father is a veteran of the most antique and classic form of acting there is, commedia dell'arte, and specializes in playing that free spirit, the masked figure, the Harlequin.

If this is a self-reflective midlife crisis metaphor for Pasotti about returning to roots and rejecting the relative superficiality of his own thespian involvements, that had interesting possibilities, even if they've not quite been realized. But Italian critics of I, Harlequin are no more enthusiastic than I can be. The consensus is that the best thing about the movie without question is Herlitzka. Apart from his authority as Harlequin, Giovanni and Paolo are lookalikes. Pasotti still has a mop-headed, long-necked, lean athleticism that makes him very youthful, but Herlitzka's lean frame, beak nose, and strong cheekbones do give him and Pasotti a strong family resemblance. Herlitzka is an actor of understated, natural authority.

Giovanni is gnarly, but still vigorous. Though his local doctor has told him that his condition is beyond treatment, he refuses to acknowledge his cancer and focuses on commedia dell'arte as always, now planning a big performance in a grand old theater in the city that has magically become available. Actually Paolo, who has the influence and the means, has arranged it as a kind of farewell offering, and his father knows this. The charm of the all-too-brief commedia dell'arte sequences lies in Herlitzka's performances, particularly his legendary "fly" routine, reminiscent of French mime, and the excitement of the younger actors in his troupe, including the young woman, Cristina (Valeria Bilello), the big-haired younger clown (Eugenio De Giorgi), and a black actor (Harouna Dabré). Another young supernumerary is Paolo's egocentric girlish fidanzata Francesca (Lavinia Longhi), whom he's finding TV opportunities for. Unfortunately these characters aren't individualized much, nor are the rich details of commedia dell'arte brought out. And Italian critics have been merciless about the filmmaking here, damning the collaboration with the equally under-experienced Bini (who's only done shorts and documentaries), calling the lighting and camerawork mediocre, and pointing out that framing and music have spoiled some of Giovanni's best moments. That didn't strike me so much. It was just that the action lacks weight. Nothing comes of the contrasts between father's and son's lives.

A clearly ineffectual element of the story is the TV show. Paolo must meet back in Rome with his director and coproducers, etc., but none of that matters to us very much; it is merely noise. What matters is what's happening in Bergamo. But that's until Giovanni dies. Then, Paolo must go back to his show in Rome, and when he insists on playing Harlequin in the Bergamo theater in the place of his father, things change. It's a fairytale, symbolic ending, but it's charming. And Pasotti's physicality carries off his commedia dell'arte turn quite nicely. Perhaps this is a predictable wish-fulfillment and a too-easy declaration of freedom, but it's a fresh, lighthearted and original second half.

Apart a few major figures -- Matteo Garrone, Paolo Sorrentino, and Marco Bellocchio -- and Bernardo Bertolucci is still in the game -- in the lifeless, bland state of Italian cinema today many directors seem like accomplished mediocrities. Pasotti hasn't joined either group officially yet. He's simply thrown his hat and mask into the game.

I, Harlequin/Io, Arlequino, 85 mins., debuted Oct. 2014 at the Rome Film Festival. It opened in Italian theaters Jun. 11, 2015. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series, showing to the public at the Vogue Theater Sat., Nov. 14, 2015, 3:45 p.m.

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