Cannes Film Festival, Special Screening

Osvaldo Valenti and Luisa Ferida, a popular onscreen and off-screen couple of the 1930s, might have been forgotten by time had they not become Fascist sympathizers and were killed by Partisans at the end of WWII. In "Sanguepazzo" – which premiered to a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes – Marco Tullio Giordana ("Best of Youth") uses modern-day stars Monica Bellucci and Luca Zingaretti (the detective of the hit TV series "Inspector Montalbano") and all the ingredients of a classic epic to render them human.

Although the story is largely unknown outside of Italy, Bellucci will surely draw international audiences. And as an intelligent melodrama the film can reach beyond the highbrow viewers of "Best of Youth" to more mainstream audiences. In Italy, however, some are already screaming "revisionism" and accusing the director of justifying the actions of the pair, who were allegedly accomplices to torture, although her guilt, at least, was dubitable at the time. Yet Giordana never makes apologies for them.

After a weak start (including unnecessary black and white footage and Bellucci as a 20-something ingenue, which is impossible to swallow), the film quickly becomes compelling. The heart of "Sanguepazzo" is Luisa, ambitious and principled and in love with two men: seducer and gambler Osvaldo, and Golfiero (Alessio Boni, "Best of Youth"), the gay director who makes her a star. With Golfiero unattainable, Luisa and Osvaldo soon become inseparable companions.

Eventually, Golfiero joins the Resistance movement as Osvaldo -- addicted as much to fame and his self-importance as he is to drugs -- opportunistically allies himself with the Fascists, although he is the first to mock Mussolini. In a particularly memorable scene, he explains to a Fascist idealogue that that as an actor who usually plays the "bad guy" he embodies what normal people fantasize about but dare not do. So he indulges in the degraded and degrading and what is most unforgivable to society, and asks no one to pardon his "sins." Osvaldo knows better than most that there is good in the bad and bad in the good.

Giordana strikes several universal, timeless notes here: the proximity of show business to power and the fact that celebrities are equally loved and loathed for the very excesses that bring them fame -- talent, fearlessness or recklessness. Also salient is Giordana's depiction of wartime. Having joined Mussolini's Salo Republic, the actors left Rome for a surreally sunny and peaceful Venice. While despicable, it is obvious why two social-climbing artists chose to relax on their yacht and dine on the Grand Canal at a time when the rest of the country was starving, fighting or dying.

Bellucci is well cast as the "diva-within-a-diva," both known more their beauty than their skills. Boni is convincing as a man in love with a woman he can never fully love. But it is Zingaretti who ironically as the most flawed character gives the film it's humanity and depth. Whether pathetic, tender, cruel or jealous, he is always riveting.

The film will be extended into a mini-series for television.

Production companies: BiBi Film (Italy), Paradis Films and Orly Films (France)
Cast: Monica Bellucci, Luca Zingaretti, Alessio Boni, Maurizio Donadoni, Alessandro Di Natale, Giovanni Visentin, Luigi Diberti, Paolo Bonanni, Tresy Taddei.
Director: Marco Tullio Giordana.
Screenwriters: Giordana, Leone, Colonna, Enzo Ungari.
Producer: Angelo Barbagallo.
Director of photography: Roberto Forza.
Production designer: Giancarlo Basili.
Music: Franco Piersanti.
Costume designer: Maria Rita Barbera.
Editor: Roberto Missiroli.
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch.
No MPAA rating, 150 minutes