'Magic Nights' ('Notti magiche'): Film Review | Rome 2018

Courtesy of the Rome Film Festival
Light, fast, funny and a little sad.

Paolo Virzi's bittersweet comedy describes the tail end of the glorious Italian cinema.

In a moment of cinematic doldrums, some of the most popular new Italian films look back nostalgically at the golden age of neorealism and comedy Italian-style, like  two applauded docs that bowed at the Rome Film Festival that tip their hats to Vittorio Gassman (I’m Gassman! King of Comedy) and Rino Barillari (The King of Paparazzi).

Closing the festival, instead, was Paolo Virzi’s delightful but decidedly uncelebratory Magic Nights (Notti magiche) which chooses to stare at the after-image of the glory days when, in the early '90s, the Roman film industry had pretty much already gone to seed, petered out and fallen from its height. Like Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (which in other ways it resembles not at all), it casts a wistful eye on the past and a jaded one on the present and future. It is often incredibly on target in singling out the absurd characters, life styles and ideas (and ideals) of those years that now seem weirdly funny.

Bouncing back from his underwhelming American road movie The Leisure Seeker, Virzi returns to familiar territory where he is fully in creative control and, most importantly, has something to say about the cynicism and corruption that dominated an era. He cleverly melds several real-life figures into screen characters who will ring a bell — many bells — for Italian insiders but will be unfamiliar to other viewers. But even without the bonus of recognition, the film is fast-paced entertainment that connects with audiences and conveys the atmosphere of a little-explored era, boding well for its fortunes beyond the de rigueur festival berths.

Virzi and his fellow screenwriters Francesco Piccolo and Francesca Archibugi cannily open the show on a real prize awarded to young screenwriting talents, the Premio Solinas. Among the anxious finalists are the curly-haired Sicilian intellectual Antonino (Mauro Lamantia), the happy-go-lucky Tuscan ladies’ man Luciano (Giovanni Toscano) and the neurotic daughter of a wealthy politician, Eugenia Malaspina (Irene Vetere). They are about to become fast friends, after Eugenia invites the boys to keep her company in her luxurious rooftop apartment overlooking Rome.

Sometime later, one hot summer evening, Italy loses the world soccer cup semi-finals to Argentina on penalties. While a local crowd emotionally watches the match on a TV set under a bridge, they are so caught up in the game that they barely notice a black limo plunging over the side of the bridge into the Tiber river. Its only occupant is Leandro Saponaro (Giancarlo Giannini), a famous film producer, and he is dead. Murdered apparently, because there’s no water in his lungs when the police fish out the car.

The captain of the carabinieri (Paolo Sassanelli, refreshingly ironic and intelligent) first hears the hysterical testimony of Saponaro’s mistress Giusy (a very funny Marina Rocco as an over-endowed blonde in baby doll dresses, redeemed by a heart of gold). She accuses the three tyro screenwriters, who were in the producer’s company just before he died, of murdering him. The police duly haul them in for questioning and they recount their adventures in the Roman film business.

After Antonino wins the Solinas prize and a check for 25 million liras (the braggart Luciano has come in third), they celebrate in a smoky trattoria with the jury. Present are film agents, producers, a powerful woman entertainment lawyer and the crème de la crème of Italian screenwriters, all snowy-haired and past their prime. (The wonderful Roberto Herlitzka plays one of the most dictatorial and eccentric.) The young winners discover that they have been selected, at least in part, to become ghost-writers for the old-timers, joining their legions of anonymous sycophants who were once promising young writers themselves.

To break into this unholy business and the roomfuls of tip-tapping typewriters, Luciano stays up the whole night speed-reading a novel and turning it into an instant screenplay, while Antonino and Eugenia platonically sleep together. Luciano is sly enough to become part of the film scene at outdoor restaurants and gatherings of the cinematic. The naïve Antonino gets hooked by the producer Saponaro, indebted up to his ears, and the boy’s 25 million lira check soon finds its way into the pocket of Federico Fellini, who is shooting the last scene of The Voice of the Moon at Dinocittà, produced by Saponaro. (The film was actually produced by Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori.) Roberto Benigni’s silhouette is unmistakable against the giant full moon.

Eugenia, meanwhile, has her own misadventure with a famous French actor (Jalil Lespert) in which her listless, depressive, pill-popping personality plays a major role. The joyous, life-affirming female characters of Virzi hits like The First Beautiful Thing and La pazza gioia (Like Crazy) are nowhere to be seen — unless you count the cameo of Ornella Muti, who gives Luciano the thrill of his life behind some bushes. On the other hand, the men aren’t brimming with vitality, either. In the shadows of a film office, Luciano is startled to glimpse Marcello Mastroianni sobbing broken-heartedly over his breakup with Catherine Deneuve, and a solitary Antonioni type dines alone in the midst of a crowd, until his existential loneliness is unexpectedly filled by Luciano’s girlfriend.

While the older actors like Giannini are perfect imitations of their contemporaries, the trio of young actors are exceptionally good in bringing depth and sadness to those who represent the future — characters who could easily have remained on the surface. The captain of the carabinieri gets in a final word of sage advice to these would-be scions of grand Italian cinema: “You want to be scriptwriters but you don’t know how to be spectators. Kids, keep your windows open on life.” But their fate is different in the brief 25-years-later scene that closes the film; Virzi’s bittersweet comedy skills force a smile, even though all the news is bad.

Two hours of screen time fly by, paced to the chipper rhythms of Nino Rota and the Fellini films, until Carlo Virzi's score turns more brooding. Jacopo Quadri’s editing makes a major contribution to keeping things funny and moving along. Vladan Radovic’s inventive cinematography and Alessandro Vannucci's detailed sets, like Saponaro's tasteless office, to name one jewel, amusingly mimic the excesses of the period.   

Production companies: Lotus Production with Rai Cinema in association with 3 Marys Entertainment
Cast: Mauro Lamantia, Giovanni Toscano, Irene Vetere, Roberto Herlitzka, Marina Rocco, Paolo Sassanelli, Giulio Scarpati, Simona Marchini, Tea Falco, Ornella Muti, Jalil Lespert, Giancarlo Giannini
Director: Paolo Virzi
Screenwriters: Francesco Piccolo, Francesca Archibugi, Paolo Virzi
Producer: Marco Belardi
Director of photography: Vladan Radovic
Production designer: Alessandro Vannucci
Costume designer: Catia Dottori
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
Music: Carlo Virzi
Casting director: Elisabetta Boni
Venue: Rome Film Fest

126 minutes