'Capri-Revolution': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival
Try Ischia instead.

Italian director Mario Martone draws inspiration from a commune of artist-radicals that took up residence on the sun-kissed southern isle in the early 20th century.

Picture a cult-like troupe of Martha Graham dancers prancing naked on the rocks overlooking the Mediterranean and you have an idea of the unexpected sight that greets a goatherd as she rounds up a stray on the far side of a craggy hill in Capri-Revolution. Following his most recent Venice premieres, We Believed and Leopardi, director Mario Martone again raids the history vaults, this time for a more obscure episode to reflect on man’s relationship to nature and art as an avenue for personal freedom. Or something like that. It’s a handsomely made film but too ploddingly paced to be engaging, dousing its spark in a sea of didactic dialogue.

A widely admired theater director in Italy, Martone moved into cinema in the early 1990s with Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician and L’Amore molesto, contemporary stories set in his native Naples, notable for their psychological complexity and dramatic intensity. But his work for the screen has grown starchier over the years, becoming lifeless and dull.

That’s certainly the case with his latest entry, which veers between turgid and silly, and manages to make nude al fresco dance parties a drag. It starts out intriguingly enough, staging a collision between traditional ways and proto-hippie progressive thinking, before it turns academic. The most inventive element is an electronic score by Berlin-based composers Sascha Ring (who records as Apparat) and Philipp Thimm.

Marianna Fontana plays the goatherd, 20-year-old Lucia. Despite warnings from the locals that the foreigners are devils, she refuses to be scared off by the free-spirited artists from Northern Europe that have taken up residence on the Capri cliffs. Soon she’s shedding her clothes and joining in the frolic. Through this passionate, curious central character, Martone and his co-screenwriter wife, Ippolita Di Majo, explore the ways in which an illiterate peasant girl from an old-fashioned family is opened up to the possibilities of another kind of life.

The commune is inspired by the German painter and social reformer Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, who lived on Capri between 1900 and 1913 with a group of anti-military naturists that ate no meat and used only homeopathic medicine, all unconventional ideas for that time. Martone shifts the action forward slightly to the eve of World War I and mixes in some of the philosophies of the more historically significant German artist Joseph Beuys.

That composite figure here becomes the fictionalized Seybu (Dutch actor Reinout Scholten van Aschat), a bearded Jesus type who wears his disinhibition on his calico sleeve, leading the group in explorations of music, dance, art and sexual freedom to nourish the spirit. He becomes something of a mentor to Lucia, giving her the pluck to dismiss her overbearing brothers’ attempts to marry her off to a self-satisfied older widowed merchant. In one of the film’s more surprising flourishes, Seybu takes her to his private “temple” in a cave, anointing her in a ritual that prompts her to imagine herself levitating high above the island. But he’s surprisingly short on charisma for a guru, even when he’s tinkling out anachronistic tunes at the piano like Keith Jarrett.

Soon Lucia learns to read, and with what seems like improbable speed given the unclear lapse of time, she even picks up English, yielding some especially clunky dialogue. But dissent emerges within the group to burst the utopian bubble as German psychotherapist Herbert (Maximilian Dirr) starts changing the rules and manipulating the women into channeling Artemis, goddess of the hunt.

There’s a lot happening at any given time — electricity comes to the island, Lucia’s brothers go off to war, self-exiled Russians talk of revolution. But in place of narrative momentum, we get tiresome ideological discussions amongst Seybu’s circle, matched by the contrasting views of the young town medic, Carlo (Antonio Folletto), a man of science and matter, and another crashing bore.

While there’s not much heat in Lucia’s interactions with either Seybu or Carlo, and the quality of the acting is all over the place, Fontana has a warmth and spontaneity that at least give the movie a pulse. Her emancipation from the pastoral community into the larger, more forward-thinking world presumably is meant to suggest the early roots of freedoms that would go on to flower fully in the 1960s. But Martone favors a dialectical approach over persuasive dramatization, providing little emotional involvement with what should be an adventurous and inspiring outcome for the protagonist.

Production companies: Indigo Film, RAI Cinema, in association with Pathe
Cast: Marianna Fontana, Reinout Scholten van Aschat, Antonio Folletto, Gianluca Di Gennaro, Eduardo Scarpetta, Donatella Finocchiaro, Jenna Thiam, Ludovico Girardello, Lola Klamroth, Maximilian Dirr

Director: Mario Martone
Screenwriters: Mario Martone, Ippolita Di Majo
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori
Executive producer: Viola Prestieri
Director of photography: Michele D’Attanasio
Production designer: Giancarlo Muselli
Costume designer: Ursula Patzak
Music: Sascha Ring, Philipp Thimm
Editors: Jacopo Quadri, Natalie Cristiani
Choreographer: Raffaella Giordano
Casting: Paola Rota, Raffaele Di Florio
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Pathe Films

123 minutes