Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 27, 2018 11:43 pm 
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An Armenian dream factory

Hotel Gagarin, an ensemble piece, is a movie road movie. It concerns the ostensible making of a film that requires a group of (mostly) Italians to go to Armenia, in the southern Caucasus, in wintertime. But it's a scam, filmed as a good-humored, slightly bawdy joke, that turns serious, and risks a delicate sentimentality.

The tale begins with a disreputable producer called Franco Paradiso (Tommaso Ragno), who assembles a group of suckers for a movie he never intends to have made, simply to raise European grant money and abscond with it. Whether all this makes sense is secondary. Simone Spada, the director of Hotel Gagarin, is mainly concerned to lead us pleasurably from one scene to the next and fill each of them with a colorful character and a dream.

After Paradiso, the next individual we meet, a jovial giant of a man, is a naive professor of history and cinema appreciation, Niccola (the ample-bodied Giuseppe Battiston, who recently played the quizzical detective in The Last Prosecco). We see him lecturing a class of arrogant know-nothings, whose interest in and respect for cinema is nonexistent, when he suddenly receives a blunt call from Paradiso saying he's going to produce his scenario and that work on it starts tomorrow, and he'd better show up. Well, this has long been Nicola's dream. What has he got to lose?

To lead his fake "crew," Paradiso calls an Italianized Russian "events planner," Valeria (Czech-born Barbora Bobulova, who has a raft of good Italian films to her credit). No stranger to Paradiso's crooked dealings, she is on on the scam. She will be his ally and get a substantial cut for leading the scam in Armedia, or at least he allows her to believe this. He finds a real photographer called Sergio (the handsome Luca Argentero), who's on the run from the Mob for a bad debt and will accept any excuse to disappear for a while. Off the streets of Rome he grabs a prostitute, Patrizia (Silvia D’Amico), who he promises will play the lead. He picks up Elio (Claudio Amendola), an electrician with no movie experience, and a handful of others.

The naive Niccola is too excited at the prospect of having his scenario made into a film to question the credentials of any of these dubious characters, though the smallness of the crew does worry him. There is also a drunken local "guide" called Aram (Hovhannes Azoyan), a goofy mime, like Harpo Marx, and a few others. They all wind up at a tall, wide old hotel on a barren hill, the Gagarin, named after the Cosmonaut, Yuri, and placed the middle of a snowy vastness, a setting Wes Anderson might have liked.

This promises to go very badly for the poor dupes out in the chilly Caucasus - especially when it turns out there is a war going on: the Azerbaijani army has been firing on the Nagorno-Karabakh. And you know how it is when they get at each other. The visiting "filmmakers" are forced to remain in Hotel Gagarin: moving around outside, for the moment, would be too dangerous. Phone contact with the outside is also cut off.

And then the villagers from nearby come to them, hearing word that great Italian cinematographers are on hand, and wanting to have their own fantasies put on film. These include a white-bearded geezer (Ara Sargsyan) who always wanted to be Yuri Gagarin. The motley crew obliges, participating in games and pantomime, eventually faking filmmaking in a way that, at least for Nicola, who becomes the director, is satisfying to the imagination for him too. When eventually an emergency unit comes from the Italian embassy with a plane to rescue them, the satisfaction is bittersweet. For a while we, the viewers, participate in their fantasy, though its realization depends on a lot of our good will and a lot of Simone Spada's montages. Not everyone goes back, not Patrizia, who likes it better here, and goes off on a horse with Aram. Elio, whose role as electrician is much grander here than it was back home, may not be inclined to leave either. Maybe the De Sica and Zavattini of Miracolo a Milano would have understood this scatterbrained, genial fantasy. The whimsical end credits are choice. The scenario was coscripted by Spada and Lorenzo Rossi Espagnet.

Hotel Gagarin, 93 mins, released in Italy 24 May 2018. It was screened for this review as part of the 2018 San Francisco New Italian Cinema series, where it is scheduled to show at the Vogue Theater Sat., 1 Dec. 2018 at 8:15 p.m.

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