The Trick in the Sheet -- Film Review

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TAORMINA, Sicily -- What better venue for the world premiere of Alfonso Arau's "The Trick in the Sheet," a celebration of the earliest days of cinema, than the Teatro Antico, a 2,300-year-old Greco-Roman amphitheater, a monument to an even more ancient mode of storytelling. This international production is a labor of love for the movie's star and producer, Sicilian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta, perhaps best known for her role in "Il Postino." This lavish period piece is perhaps too much of a film buff's fantasy to have widespread boxoffice appeal, but it will charm art house audiences in America as well as more mainstream audiences in Europe.

The film begins in a small town in southern Italy in 1905, when live theatrical performances are supplemented with short silent pictures. "Trick" even recreates a famous moment in film history when spectators flee in terror from the image of a train tearing toward them on the makeshift movie screen, a large white sheet.

A young medical student, Federico (Primo Reggiani), is mesmerized by the new medium and decides to switch careers to write stories for the movies. He persuades the local distributor of the silent movies to let him direct a short film.

The lecherous producer wants something salacious, while his spinster sister demands more edifying entertainment. Federico figures he can satisfy both of them by filming the Biblical story of Susanna bathing nude while she is ogled by a couple of leering older men.

Cucinotta plays a local peasant sorceress, Marianna, who finds her own primitive forms of witchcraft supplanted by this magical new invention. Federico finds himself enchanted by Marianna, but he is also bewitched by a visiting writer (Anne Parillaud) who is renting a lakeside villa.

While the script by Giovanna Cucinotta (the star's sister), Chiara Clini and Romna Nardozi sometimes slips into caricature, its virtue is that it weaves together a large number of appealing characters and themes. The film makes piquant comments on cinematic archetypes that remain relevant today.

Federico, whose name is probably meant to make us think of Italy's most famous director, comes to embody the single-minded egotism of many obsessed auteurs. The film also has something to say about how cinema -- or any form of fiction- -- exploits people like Marianna who become mere pawns in the hands of a ruthless storyteller.

Arau's direction is sometimes flaccid, but he has a strong ally in Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who captures the shimmering beauty of the countryside and the allure of this era of artistic discovery. Cucinotta and Parillaud are both so ravishing that it's easy to understand poor Federico's romantic confusion. Reggiani conveys Federico's innocence as well as his growing arrogance. Ernesto Mahieux and Giselda Volodi give choice comic performances as the warring producers. Geraldine Chaplin, however, is wasted as Federico's disapproving mother.

With its tender appreciation of the first cinematic dreamers, "Trick" tickles the fancy and pleases the senses.

Venue: Taormina Film Festival
Production: Seven Dreams
Cast: Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Anne Parillaud, Primo Reggiani, Ernesto Mahieux, Giselda Volodi, Miguel Angel Silvestre, Geraldine Chaplin
Director: Alfonso Arau
Screenwriters: Giovanna Cucinotta, Chiara Clini, Romina Nardozi
Producer: Maria Grazia Cucinotta
Executive producer: Riccardo Neri
Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro
Production designer: Giantito Burchiellaro
Music: Maria Entraigues
Costume designers: Stefano De Nardis, Claudio Manzi
Editor: Paolo Benassi
No rating, 105 minutes
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