The Black Sheep -- Film Review

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VENICE -- Most of Ascanio Celestini's theater productions consist of him sitting in a chair, captivating audiences with monologues that combine great wit, historical commentary and genuine despair over a range of social injustices. So it's no surprise that "The Black Sheep," the feature debut from the prolific raconteur-writer-actor, also captivates, though here for the precision and artistry with which he brings his characters to life.

In a work of art that displays his sensitivity and vast storytelling skills, Celestini captures the impoverished agrarian society that was Italy just 40 years ago, the innumerable injustices that lie within our mental institutions and the story of a life, interrupted.

He is not the visual artist that Julian Schnabel is, but, like the latter in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," he lifts profound tragedy from darkness with warmth, humor and even hope without stooping to cheap sentimentality or caricature.

Nonetheless, the first Italian film in competition will divide viewers, many of whom will not appreciate the narrative-heavy style. But this is a true example of "auteur" cinema that melds the boundaries between the written word and classical visual storytelling. Celestini's frequent off-camera narration doesn't guide or illuminate events, it tells a story, flows along streams of consciousness and repeatedly tries to make sense of the senseless.

Most importantly, it doesn't sacrifice character development. On the contrary, the film works thanks to its well-written roles and great performances, especially from intense young newcomer Luigi Fedele.

At the end of the "fabulous 1960s," 10-year-old Nicola (Fedele) lives with his grandmother, who tends chickens and was "born old, lived old and died old." His mother is vegetating in a mental institution, his sheepherder father (Nicola Rignanese) and two older brothers (Alessandro Marverti, Mauro Marchetti) live up in the hills. Nicola has a fertile imagination -- particularly for martians -- but is failing school and loves only his classmate Marinella (Wally Galdieri) while the rest of his peers mock his poverty and backward ways.

During the summer, Nicola goes to help his brothers, who commit a terrible crime. To keep the "black sheep" of the family -- the only member neither as crude nor violent as the rest -- from giving his siblings away, Nicola is sent to live as a guest with the nun (Luisa De Santis) who runs the mental asylum. When an ensuing tragedy occurs, Nicola is wrongfully blamed and officially locked up. The black sheep becomes sacrificial lamb.

Thirty years later, Nicola (Celestini) and his only companion (Giorgio Tirabassi, a wonderful actor Italian cinema too often ignores) live a quiet routine in the institution. They banter comically, help the nun with groceries and remind us that the mad never leave madhouses in a tragicomic joke that Celestini repeats throughout.

"Sheep" jumps back and forth between the past and present; for example, during a daily outing to the supermarket, Nicola sees the older Marinella (Maya Sansa) again and starts dreaming about a normal life. Like so many of the institutionalized, Nicola wasn't mad when he arrived in the asylum, but after decades of electroshock therapy and pills, does he stand a chance outside the gates that keep him from the "real world?"

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production: Madeleine, RAI Cinema, BIM Distribuzione
Cast: Ascanio Celestini, Giorgio Tirabassi, Luigi Fedele, Maya Sansa, Luisa De Santis, Nicola Rignanese, Alessandro Marverti, Mauro Marchetti, Wally Galdieri
Director-music: Ascanio Celestini
Screenwriters: Ascanio Celestini, Ugo Chiti, Wilma Labate
Producers: Alessandra Acciai, Carlo Macchitella, Giorgio Maglulio
Director of photography: Daniele Cipri
Production designer: Tommaso Bordone
Costume designer: Grazia Colombini
Editor: Giogio Franchini
No rating, 96 minutes
Sales: Beta Cinema
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