Napoleon and Me



Tribeca Film Festival

NEW YORK -- "Napoleon and Me," which had its North American premiere at Tribeca, benefits from a delicious story, executed with considerable brio by director Paolo Virzi. Built around a canny performance from Daniel Auteuil as Napoleon during his exile on Elba and produced on a lavish scale, the film definitely has a chance to capture an art house audience.

"Napoleon" has had a mixed reception in France and Italy, but this might have more to do with Europeans' passionately protective attitudes toward their own historical icons. It might do better in the U.S., where it will be enjoyed as a romp that turns out to have a subtle relevance to the current political climate.

The film begins with twin premises that are loaded with comic possibilities. First, it looks at the transformation of a sleepy, provincial island when a disgraced celebrity suddenly takes up residence there, and tiny Elba becomes the hub of the universe. The story is seen through the eyes of a young teacher, Martino Papucci (Elio Germano), an idealist who despises everything Napoleon stands for.

When he is recommended to the deposed emperor as a bright young man who might help transcribe his memoirs, the teacher sees a chance to assassinate the tyrant. But he soon begins to fall under Napoleon's charismatic spell.

Virzi and producing partner Marco Chimenz saw the story (loosely adapted from a novel by Ernesto Ferrero) as a means of commenting on the magnetism of Italy's right-wing former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But American audiences can just as easily read it as a metaphor for the story of a Move On-style firebrand who is unexpectedly invited into the inner circle of George W. Bush and finds himself tickled by his proximity to power.

Germano is engaging as the confused young radical, but the early scenes of the movie are a bit too leisurely and could benefit from tighter editing. The film hits its stride when Auteuil arrives on the scene. A marvelous sequence shows Napoleon leaving his carriage to enter the village marketplace, where he is mobbed by adoring throngs. Even Martino is swept up in the frenzy that consumes the visiting celebrity. As he gets closer to Napoleon, he is mesmerized by the great man's accessibility.

Auteuil gives a brilliant, multifaceted performance that highlights Napoleon's charm, intelligence, ruthlessness and even vulnerability. There's a touching moment when the emperor is reunited with his old nursemaid (Margarita Lozano). But Auteuil also shows us that Napoleon can be treacherous and remorseless in taking revenge against his enemies.

All of the performances are first-rate. Monica Bellucci is ravishing as the baroness who captivates both Martino and Napoleon, and Sabrina Impacciatore and Francesca Inaudi as the other women in Martino's life are equally lively. The re-creation of time and place is exceptional, with impressive crowd scenes and lush production and costume design. The coda, which quickly summarizes the aftermath of Napoleon's escape from Elba, adds the right ironic note to this impudent, provocative study of the seductions of power, a theme just as relevant in our era as in the early 19th century.

Cattleya, Medusa Film, Sky, Babe Film, Alquimia Cinema, Hollywood Gang Prods.
Director: Paolo Virzi
Screenwriters: Francesco Bruni, Furio Scarpelli, Giacomo Scarpelli, Paolo Virzi
Based on the novel by: Ernesto Ferrero
Producers: Marco Chimenz, Gianni Nunnari, Giovanni Stabilini, Riccardo Tozzi
Executive producer: Matteo De Laurentiis
Co-producers: Fabio Conversi, Francisco Ramos
Director of photography: Alessandro Pesci
Production designer: Francesco Frigeri
Music: Juan Bardem, Paolo Buonvino
Costume designer: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: Cecilia Zanuso
Napoleon Bonaparte: Daniel Auteuil
Martino Papucci: Elio Germano
Baronessa Emilia Speziali: Monica Bellucci
Diamanti Papucci: Sabrina Impacciatore
Ferrante Papucci: Valerio Mastandrea
Mirella: Francesca Inaudi
Cosimo Bartolini: Massimo Ceccherini
Maestro Fontanelli: Omero Antonutti
Pascalina: Margarita Lozano
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating