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Though the title suggests a Douglas Sirk salute in the offing, Magnificent Presence is a far-from-disturbing ghost story built around a young gay baker at odds with his love life and career, who he gets entangled with a company of theatrical spooks. Director Ferzan Oztepek (Ignorant Fairies, Facing Windows) has invented his own niche in Italian cinema with dramatic comedies able to bridge the gap between festivals and popular audiences. That middle ground is where Magnificent Presence falls, well-crafted, light entertainment a little too repetitive and inconsequential to hit the high notes and chiefly aimed at local audiences.
As in other Ozpetek films, gayness is treated with a relaxed naturalness almost unknown in Italian cinema, providing a tad more sophistication than the loosely spun, multi-plot story would otherwise have and offering a tenuous international hook. A reliable cast of popular thesps should give the Fandango production an initial push-off in Italy.
Dramatic actor Elio Germano puts on a winsome comic hat to play Pietro, a 20-something Sicilian who has moved to Rome hoping to become an actor. His temp job as a pastry chef would never pay the rent on a rambling old apartment in a posh neighborhood, were it not for the fact that the place is haunted with ghosts who drive out one tenant after another.
Against the advice of his kissing cousin Maria (Paola Minaccioni), Pietro takes the place and starts repainting. Tiresome screen time later, he has come to terms with his unwanted roomers and decided to co-exist with them, a foregone conclusion given his lack of alternatives. Plus the ghosts, elegantly garbed in evening attire, are about as scary as the overly made-up characters in a Pupi Avati film. Lead by a brooding Giuseppe Fiorello, the most convincing actor of the lot, and a platinum blonde Margherita Buy, they are a theatrical troupe who died in 1943 under mysterious circumstances which are eventually revealed by an aging diva (Anna Proclemer in a rare screen appearance) who escaped their fate. The surprising thing is how little interest Pietro shows in their backstory, and how little importance it actually has in the end, as though the ghosts of Italian Fascism had become totally irrelevant to the current generation.
What the story lacks in power it partially makes up in entertaining invention, like the fact the ghosts are skillfully rounded, if old-fashioned, performers who give Pietro tips on the acting profession. Their dapper young writer (Andrea Bosca) seems attracted to the youth and encourages him to get back on his feet after a serious romantic fiasco. There is even room to throw in a transsexual underworld, described with Fellini-like exaggeration by veteran D.P. Maurizio Calvesi and production designer Andrea Crisanti.
Bottom line: Ghosts, gay love and actingget stuffed into Ferzan Ozpetek’s roomy, well-crafted dramedy that re-examines the divide between theater and real life.
Venue: Rome, March 16, 2012
Production companies: Fandango, Faros Film
Co-Production: Rai Cinema
Cast: Elio Germano, Paola Minaccioni, Beppe Fiorello, Margherita Buy, Vittoria Puccini
Director: Ferzan Ozpetek
Screenwriters: Federica Pontremoli, Ferzan Ozpetek
Producer: Domenico Procacci
Director of photography: Maurizio Calvesi
Production designer: Andrea Crisanti
Costumes: Alessandro Lai
Editor: Walter Fasano
Music: Pasquale Catalano
Sales Agent: 01 Distribution
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