‘Latin Lover’: FILMART Review

Latin Lover Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Hong Kong International Film Festival

Latin Lover Still - H 2015

A nostalgic look at iconic Italian films gives a standard ensemble comedy some heavenly moments

Director Cristina Comencini salutes the heyday of Italian cinema and its fascinating lady-killers

The roaring years of the Italian cinema ended some time ago, and their weighty legacy has often been more of a burden than an inspiration. While many of the country’s recent exports have done their  best to shake off the lingering memory of post-war neorealism and the great comedies and hard-hitting social themes, these highpoints still cast a long shadow. Latin Lover can be read as an attempt to banish these monsters of the past, in the form of a great Italian movie diva who is ten years dead. It's a strong idea and lifts what might otherwise have been another contemporary ensemble comedy to an amusing new pitch.

One of writer-director Cristina Comencini’s most successful films, it can theoretically be enjoyed as simply a relationship drama about the star’s multiple widows and children, all of whom happen to be female. But this is its least original part. Its charm for film fans and overseas audiences relates to the funny, nostalgic bits of movie pastiche featuring the defunct star, who is handsomely and seductively played by Francesco Scianna.

It will also be remembered as the last film of the late Virna Lisi, the Italian comedy diva who co-starred with Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis during her brief career in Hollywood in the Sixties. The mixed Italo-Spanish cast is enlivened by Marisa Paredes, Candela Pena and Jordi Molla.

The setting is a hot southern town in Apulia, birthplace of Saverio Crispo (Scianna) and current residence of his first official wife Rita (Lisi) and their grown daughter (Angela Finocchiaro), comically enamored of her celebrated père’s memory. For the tenth anniversary of his death, the town is holding a memorial service that turns into a giant family reunion with his five daughters, his Spanish wife Ramona (Paredes) and her daughter’s family. Despite long-festering jealousy, Ramona and Rita are close friends, and Lisi and Paredes play off each other warmly and well.

Other arrivals include Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in an amusing portrayal of Saverio’s neurotic French daughter Stephanie, who has become an insecure but well-known actress, and his Swedish (Pihla Viitala) and American (Nadeah Miranda) daughters. With all these characters hanging around the house, plus an assortment of locals and even Saverio’s close buddy and movie stand-in Pedro (Lluis Homar as a man with a secret), Comencini and co-writer Giuliana Calenda have no problem generating comic intrigues and mini-dramas. The strength of the cast upgrades this standard material quite a bit. Bruni Tedeschi, for example, is a thoroughly delightful victim, practically a parody of her oft-visited role as a screen neurotic, with the difference that here her paranoia is well-founded and the audience is on her side.

Although this seems to be a film all about women, there’s no denying that what sets it apart from the crowd is the absent Saverio, the actor “who made women dream” and who still has an iron grip on their hearts. In an amusing series of fake film clips and newsreels, he embodies the fascinating, debonair lady-killer of yesteryear. The well-cast Sicilian Scianna exudes not only the needed heart-throb star power (evident from his first film role in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Baaria), but rather extraordinary mimetic gifts as a composite Latin lover in iconic film roles. From the suave elegance of Vittorio De Sica and Marcello Mastroianni to the glowering passion of Vittorio Gassman, Gian Maria Volonté, Giuliano Gemma and even Clint Eastwood (evidently an honorary L.L.), he embodies a mash up of them all. The brief black-and-white clips, little more than flashes, bring to mind happy memories of legendary directors like Ettore Scola and Fellini, Dino Risi, Elio Petri, Sergio Leone and the comic masters Mario Monicelli and Pietro Germi, not to mention the director’s own father Luigi Comencini. The climax is of course the memorial service, which starts out as a catastrophe but smoothly veers into a moving salute not just to Saverio, but to the beloved heyday of Italian cinema.

The Lumiere & Co production mounts the old movie scenes with loving care, recreating an impressive variety of period looks. The final Toni Renis song Quando Quando Quando offers one more bout of nostalgia for the road.

Production companies: Lumière & Co in association with Rai Cinema
Cast: Virna Lisi, Marisa Paredes, Francesco Scianna, Candela Pena, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Angela Finocchiaro, Jordi Molla, Lluis Homar, Neri Marcore, Toni Bertorelli, Nadeah Miranda
Director: Cristina Comencini, Angela FInocchiaro
Screenwriter: Giulia Calenda, Cristina Comencini
Producer: Lionello Cerri
Director of photography: Italo Petriccione
Production designer:  Paola Comencini
Costume designer: Alessandro Lai
Editor: Francesca Calvelli
Music: Andrea Farri
Casting: Laura Muccino
Sales: Rai Com

No rating, 104 minutes