Black and White



ROME -- Two years after her Oscar nomination for "Don't Tell," Cristina Comencini has opted for humor rather than melodrama in examining modern problems in her native Italy. "Black and White," her ninth film (and first since the death of her father, Luigi, a beacon of Italian cinema), is a social comedy being referred to as a kind of contemporary, Italian "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" Italy is only now dealing with racial issues that have been present for decades in many other European countries (most notably, France and Great Britain) and beyond.

The film should strike a chord with self-declared progressives and liberals of all cultures, who should recognize that we have far to go in dismantling deeply rooted bigotry.

All married couple Elena (Ambra Angiolini) and Carlo (actor/writer/television personality Fabio Volo) have in common is the color of their skin (white) and their 6-year-old daughter. Elena comes from a wealthy family and is dedicated to her job at an African aid organization. Carlo comes from a more modest background and is a computer engineer sick and tired of campaigns against world hunger.

Then Carlo meets Nadine (Aissa Maiga of "Bamako"), the dissatisfied wife of one of Elena's colleagues (Eriq Ebouaney of "Hitman"). Their love at first sight wreaks havoc upon their marriages and, more importantly, brings to light a series of prejudices and cliches from the betrayed spouses. (Maiga and Ebouaney are originally from Senegal and Cameroon, respectively, and are respected actors in their adopted country, France.)

Defying political correctness, the film written by Comencini, Giulia Calenda and Maddalena Ravagli chooses not to focus on Italy's poorest (and most numerous) immigrants but on the underlying racism in wealthier, more progressive circles. Here the deepest cut comes not so much from betrayal but the color of one's rival -- in other words, not adultery but sexuality shared with the "other."

However, the writers don't seem to know where their characters' destinies are ultimately headed: Will tradition and cultural pressure win over desire? Thus, they have created a double ending that apparently was rewritten and re-shot several times. Although somewhat confused, the second ending drives home the point that disrupted lives can't be remade as easily as a hotel bed after a night of passion (a scene that serves as a spot-on metaphor in a film that otherwise relies too heavily on dialogue).

Rising screen star Angiolini (the singer-turned-actress of "Saturno Contro") is given the most complex role in Elena, who, according to Nadine, feels a burden of guilt. Nadine presumes correctly: Elena grew up in a household with a black maid forced to wear a white apron. Yet Elena's legacy is that of an upper-class family to whom, as in the case of her womanizing father (Franco Branciaroli), loving Africa means collecting trophies, such as objects from endless safaris and in one instance a black lover.

The entire cast is strong and tight and the Italian spoken by French actors Maiga and Ebouaney is impressive indeed, yet it is Anna Bonaiuto who stands out for her temperament and comic timing. The veteran screen and stage star plays Elena's mother, Adua, herself a betrayed wife and a woman full of stereotypes. "They really do have rhythm in their blood," she says while watching Nadine's daughter dance.

And it would be nice to think that her name was no coincidence: the Battle of Adua in the 19th century was the harshest colonial defeat in Italian history.

Cattleya, RAI Cinema
Director: Cristina Comencini
Screenwriters: Cristina Comencini, Giulia Calenda, Maddalena Ravagli
Producers: Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz
Director of photography: Fabio Cianchetti
Production designer: Paola Comencini
Costume designer: Antonella Berardi
Editor: Cecilia Zanuso
Carlo: Fabio Volo
Elena: Ambra Angiolini
Nadine: Aissa Maiga
Bertrand: Eriq Ebouaney
Adua: Anna Bonaiuto
Alfonso: Franco Branciaroli
Olga: Katia Ricciarelli
Esmeralda: Teresa Saponangelo
Running time -- 102 minutes
No MPAA rating