The power, pull and persuasiveness of television comes under the subtextual microscope of director/co-writer Nanni Moretti in this engaging study of B-movie producer, Bruno Bonomo (played with quiet inner strife and flashes of the serious side of Peter Sellers by Silvio Orlando).
Deceptively simple-minded at first (Bonomo’s career and marriage are in tatters—he hopes to right both by making an action flick chronicling Christopher Columbus’ return home), following a Sunday lunch in the countryside (where a pair of mothers bicker about who’s bringing up baby best), the film slips its narrative bonds of family-life-under siege then marvelously walks, runs and finally sails to an image- sound-rich conclusion that demonstrates just how potent filmmaking can be.
Early on, Bonomo’s anything goes, outrageous style of titillating audiences and his two young sons—bedtime tales were never like this!—with blood, gore and skin is, er, firmly established: The impalement of the groom at the altar by the pent-up Aidra (Margherita Buy who also has the off-screen role of the near-bankrupt producer’s wife, Paola) is an over-the-top hoot, only outdone by her revenge on the food critic (Dario Cantarelli) whose tasteless prose gets him poached and skewered with hilarious relish.
But his Columbus project sinks on the eve of its funding meeting. Bonomo’s long-suffering director, Franco Caspio (Giuliano Montaldo), bails when asked to shoot the pivotal ocean scenes with a toy ship (cross-reference below). No problem. The wily filmmaker has another script that features billions of ill-gotten lire and a hero who wants “to build a town which has everything.” Not having time to read every page, he pitches the project oblivious to the fact that it’s actually a film about Italy’s flimflam, conviction-resistant Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (played at various times by Michele Placido, Elio De Capitani and Moretti; complemented by archival footage which includes the infamous “Nazi” taunt made in the European Parliament).
The screenplay is the first major attempt by Teresa (Jasmine Trinca, whose character lacks the depth required to truly feel her angst). The neophyte writer, now director learns her craft the hard way as the film’s key personnel (Placido’s portrayal of a fading star who lives for phone sex rings true with its shameless lechery and opportunistic work ethic) quit, threatening to scuttle the metaphorical portrait of a crocodile.
The river running through the movie plot is Bonomo’s “trial separation” which the denialist wants to end even as his actor-turned-chorister wife starts dating younger men. Spectacular is the concert scene as, with the Roma Sinfonietta valiantly working its way through Handel’s Dixit Dominus (note to subtitle translator – this is a motet not a cantata), Bonomo leaves his place in the audience and walks on stage towards the chorus. The music falls apart (with an echo to the several film versions of Beethoven’s orchestra at the tragic première of his Ninth Symphony) and the doomed couple have a very public moment of truth.
As does the very public Berlusconi. The mega billionaire used his media holdings—notably three networks—to assail the Italian electorate with his brilliance and suitability to run the country. Moretti’s trial scene (Il Caimano finally rolls after Paola buys out her finally ex-husband’s half of the family home)—don’t miss the knowing looks exchanged between prosecutor and defendant following the guilty verdict—speaks volumes about justice and popular culture. A conviction by mere judges holds little weight for a man whose empire controls the message.
With Olympic-like flames around him and another stirring orchestration from composer Franco Piersanti searing the ears (replete with Prokofiev colour and solo violin homage to Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat), the film-within-the film wraps, but the willful manipulation of honest citizens continues unabated. Thank goodness this only happens in Italy. JWR