The Passion -- Film Review

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VENICE -- Carlo Mazzacurati attempts to blend a folksy comedy about small-town misfits with a filmmaker's dramatic mid-life/career crisis and the Passion of Christ -- and ends up doing none of the above in "The Passion." Italian audiences tend to like this type of hodge-podge entertainment, and the lowbrow antics of relatively highbrow actors add commercial potential domestically. But it's difficult to imagine foreign viewers lapping it up.

The convoluted story centers on Gianni Dubois (Silvio Orlando), a director living in Rome who hasn't made a movie in five years and is broke. He is blackmailed by the mayor (Stefania Sandrelli) of a small Tuscan town -- in which water damage from Gianni's second home has ruined a priceless church fresco next door -- into directing their Christmas Passion play in one week's time. Meanwhile his agent (Fausto Russo Alesi) gives him three days to create a project for a starlet (Cristiana Capotondi), or else be dumped by the agency.

Gianni hires ex-con and aspiring actor Ramiro (Giuseppe Battiston) to be assistant director and deal with the Passion proceedings while he struggles to come up with an idea to re-launch his film career. He also befriends Caterina (Kasia Smutniak), a beautiful Polish barista who unknowingly provides creative inspiration, and butts heads with his Jesus, a weatherman-actor with delusions of grandeur (Corrado Guzzanti).

"The Passion" seems as slapped together as the pageant in the film, its humor flat and at times painfully juvenile. Examples of the latter include Maria Paiato's busty, lusty German frau (think embarrassing caricature of Madeline Kahn's legendary caricature in "Blazing Saddles") and a sex scene between Sandrelli and her lover under a mounted boar's head, as he inexplicably squeals like a boar. The plot drags under a heap of improbable, passionless moments to its homespun conclusion about friendship and the power of a pretty girl's smile. (Thankfully, Mazzacurati didn't attempt to throw a love story into the fold.)

For all its pretty costumes and picturesque locations, the movie has all the resonance of an elementary school Christmas play. Moreover, if the townspeople had actually been putting it on for decades, until the death of their long-time director, you'd think they'd know their lines by heart. Instead, they give ham-fisted readings during rehearsals as if they were hearing the story for the first time.

Smutniak is effervescent though underused and veterans Orlando and Battiston bring their usual intelligent warmth to their roles. But some other casting choices are simply puzzling, especially Russo Alesi, who looks more like a disgruntled professor than a successful agent holding Gianni's destiny in his hands.

Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Fandango, RAI Cinema
Cast: Silvio Orlando, Giuseppe Battiston, Corrado Guzzanti, Cristiana Capotondi, Stefania Sandrelli, Kasia Smutniak, Maria Paiato, Marco Messeri
Director: Carlo Mazzacurati
Screenwriters: Umberto Contarello, Doriana Leondeff, Marco Pettenello, Carlo Mazzacurati
Producer: Domenico Procacci
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Giancarlo Basili
Music: Carlo Crivelli
Costume designer: Francesca Sartori
Editors: Paolo Cottignola, Clelio Benevento
Sales: Fandango Portobello Sales
No rating, 105 minutes
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