'The Stolen Caravaggio' ('Una Storia Senza Nome'): Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Lasagna plotting obscures the point, if there is any.

Italian director Roberto Ando's latest stars Micaela Ramazzotti as a ghost screenwriter who gets in trouble with the Sicilian Mafia.

A Roman screenwriter without inspiration turns to a ghost writer who, in turn, is inspired by a mysterious character who tells her a story about the Sicilian mafia’s involvement in the case of a famous stolen painting in the glossy Italian film The Stolen Caravaggio (Una storia senza nome). It can’t come exactly as a surprise, however, that there are some stories that the mafia would prefer to keep buried, which is the dramatic motor of this peculiar mystery-thriller-drama hybrid. Director Roberto Ando (Long Live Freedom, The Confessions), who is also from Sicily, co-wrote this odd tale, which seems so enamored with the idea of layering different stories on top of one another like some kind of narrative lasagna that it finally becomes unclear what it is the film is really trying to say. This out-of-competition Venice title premieres locally Sept. 20, but won’t travel much further beyond Italian borders except to perhaps a few festivals and Italian film weeks.

The somewhat mousy Valeria (Micaela Ramazotti) works as a secretary in a production company in Rome, where the next film from star screenwriter Alessandro Pes (Alessandro Gassmann) will soon go into production. Alessandro has started to panic, however, as he hasn’t yet written a single word. Valeria’s boss doesn’t know that, in reality, she has been writing Alessandro’s screenplays for the past 10 years against meager payment and the promise of an affair with Alessandro that never quite seems to materialize. For “his” latest work, she is inspired by a grubby story that a mysterious stranger (Renato Carpentieri) tells her about how Cosa Nostra stole the Caravaggio painting The Nativity some five decades ago and why it might be resurfacing again today. 

What is perhaps the strangest thing about this altogether improbable story is how Ando seems to ignore most of the rules of contemporary film production when recounting how the film-within-the-film Alessandro supposedly wrote is greenlighted and then moved into production. Valeria’s source feeds her only one scene at a time, which makes it easier for audiences to follow. But while production companies might have a lot of faith in a star screenwriter who has delivered a few hits already, how likely is it that they'll start production on something with not even a half-finished screenplay? Here, all it takes is for Alessandro to suggest he’s working on something brilliant that he can’t show to anyone to convince not only his producer but also the internationally renowned director Jerzy Kunze (Jerzy Skolimowski, in an extended cameo) to sign up and start shooting. 

Indeed, Kunze is so eager to film in Sicily, he wants to skip the location-scouting process altogether and just start rolling, which would be fine if the project were a Dogme-like feature shot with handheld cameras and available light. But the production shown here involves complex crane shots and a large cast of actors as well as specific props including a life-size copy of one of the Baroque era’s most famous paintings. Clearly, this is not something that can be shot on the fly without careful preparation.

More than a little suspension of disbelief is thus required on behalf of the audience, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if they got something for it in return. But the film’s main issue is that it never finds its focal point. Ando, who co-wrote the pic with Angelo Pasquini and Giacomo Bendotti, seems too busy getting and then keeping all the different puzzle pieces of the complicated, multi-layered story into place to stop for a moment and wonder what the story is really about or which audience it is for. 

Art history nuts will be disappointed to know that the Caravaggio referenced in the English-language title — the original title translates as "The Story Without a Name" — could have really been any Italian painting worth a lot of money. Romance lovers will be frustrated by the fact that Valeria is a single 40-year-old who lives in the same building as her mother (Laura Morante), a literature specialist who moonlights as a ghost writer — another one! — for her friend Onofri (Renato Scarpa), the country’s minister of culture. (No points for guessing both these supporting characters will become more important as the story develops, which feels more like a plot convenience than a handy coincidence.) 

Viewers who like a good art-heist film or a complex narrative in which fact and fiction start to blend or mirror each other will also be disappointed, though lovers of a twist that can be seen coming from miles away will be able to congratulate themselves early on, as the story’s revelation of the stranger’s identity can be predicted from the moment in which a key piece of information is “casually” maneuvered into place.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, the filmmaking itself can hardly be faulted. Ramazzotti and Gassmann can do these kinds of cardboard cutout roles in their sleep but thankfully don’t look asleep when they do it. The supporting cast is also generally on the money, even if Gaetano Bruno, who plays a stuttering aristocrat in cahoots with the mafia, seems to be playing in a more comical register than the other actors, whose characters are more straightforwardly dramatic.

Cinematographer Maurizio Calvesi’s classy widescreen compositions are polished, with Ando switching to artful black-and-white for the film-within-a-film sequences. Production designer Giovanni Carluccio and costume designer Lina Nerli Taviani deliver solid work as well, in line with commercial Italian productions of a similar size. Even Marco Betta’s score is perfectly pleasant. 

One nagging question, however, remains: What, beyond a mildly entertaining story, is Ando really trying to do or say here? Perhaps the answer to this question will, like the painting of the title, forever be lost.

Production companies: Bibi Film, Rai Cinema, Agat Film & Cie 
Cast: Micaela Ramazzotti, Renato Carpentieri, Laura Morante, Jerzy Skolimowski, Antonio Catania, Gaetano Bruno, Alessandro Gassmann
Director: Roberto Ando
Screenwriters: Roberto Ando, Angelo Pasquini, Giacomo Bendotti
Producer: Angelo Barbagallo 
Director of photography: Maurizio Calvesi
Production designer: Giovanni Carluccio
Costume designer: Lina Nerli Taviani
Editor: Esmeralda Calabria
Music: Marco Betta
Casting: Antonio Rotundi
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)

In Italian, English
110 minutes