L'Uomo Nero -- Film Review

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ROME -- Although the title of actor-director Sergio Rubini's "L'Uomo Nero" translates into "The Boogeyman" in English, it's anything but a horror story. The filmmaker returns to his native Apulia region to portray a frustrated railway man who dreams of being an artist.

Internationally, this colorful if not very original family drama can't compete with Guiseppe Tornatore's sweeping "Baaria," but Rubini has a certain following on the independent arthouse scene in Europe. Supporting actors Valeria Golino and Riccardo Scamarcio reach even wider audiences and here offer good, understated performances.

From his deathbed, Ernesto (Rubini) whispers something to his adult son that sparks a flashback to 1967. Ernesto is the stationmaster of a remote town in the Italian south who dreams of becoming a famous painter. He lives with his seven-year-old son Gabriele (the spirited and totally natural Guido Giaquinto); his wife Franca (Golino), a full-time teacher and put-upon housewife; and her 20-something brother Pinuccio (Scamarcio), who sees no reason to move out on his own.

Ernesto decides to hold a solo exhibit in town, the centerpiece of which will be his copy of a self-portrait by his favorite artist, Cezanne. When the local critic (Vito Signorile) rips apart the copy, Ernesto is demoralized and plots his revenge and redemption in a way that, alas, is too predictable.

Rubini criticizes critics, specifically how they ruin careers and dreams with their pettiness and/or ignorance, as he did in his 2008 film "Colpo D'Occhio. But this criticism actually detracts from the more interesting drama. For when the adult Gabriele come to realize his father's secret and artistic potential, it doesn't justify the egocentricity of a man who whined about being a victim yet never saw how he victimized his own family.

"L'Uomo Nero" works better as a portrait of 1960s Italy than the story of a frustrated artist. The film's true anchor is Gabriele, through whose eyes we see the story, and who sometimes fears the ever-irascible Ernesto like the boogeyman. He finds greater comfort in his Don Juan of an uncle and his educated mother whose mood swings belie a struggle to maintain her sanity under stifling social and domestic limitations.

Yet there's a simplicity and theatricality in the writing that go beyond Gabriele's childhood perceptions and naivete, that at times make "L'Uomo Nero" itself a copy of more moving depictions of familiar material.

The film is also full of references big and small to Rubini's previous work -- including his directorial debut "The Station," in which he played a stationmaster in a small Apulian town, and his role as a dentist in Gabriele Salvatores' "Teeth" -- and even Nicola Piovani recycles himself, with a score almost identical to the music he wrote for "Life is Beautiful."

Opened: In Italy Dec. 4
Production companies: Bianca Film, RAI Cinema
Cast: Sergio Rubini, Valeria Golino, Riccardo Scamarcio, Guido Giaquinto, Fabrizio Gifuni, Anna Falchi, Vito Signorile, Maurizio Micheli
Director: Sergio Rubini
Producer: Donatella Botti
Screenwriters: Domenico Starnone, Carla Cavalluzzi, Rubini
Director of photography: Fabio Cianchetti
Production designer: Luca Gobbi
Music: Nicola Piovani
Costume designer: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: Esmeralda Calabria
No rating, 118 minutes