I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.
The Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, are rightly revered veteran Italian filmmakers. They have a nice touch with big cinematic historical ideas, but, like the late Alain Resnais, they always keep a sense of acting ensemble and theatrical efficiency. Their latest, Wondrous Boccaccio (Maraviglioso Boccaccio) (Italy, 2015) features their usual scriptwriting smarts, an elegant but muscular visual strategy, and some of Italy’s best young film actors. But most will find this to be a decidedly tame rendering of Boccaccio’s Decameron; full of black humor, a healthy skepticism of the Catholic church, and liberal doses of erotica, the Tavianis have distilled these excerpted stories into a PG-rated omnibus of bittersweet ironies that take themselves far too seriously, far too deferentially. The plague is devastating Florence, Italy in the 14th century, and ten young friends (seven women, three of which bring their male partners) escape Florence to a secluded country villa where they hope to wait out the worst of it. In the meantime, they’ll tell each other stories…
The Tavianis invest a lot of care into the initial framing episode, but the execution of the stories thereafter is pretty thin soup. The first, the story of a sick woman (Vittoria Puccini) abandoned for dead by her husband who is then nursed back to health by an unrequited lover, is salvaged solely by cinematographer Simone Zampagni’s crisp-yet-painterly camerawork (superb throughout). In one of the more familiar stories, a painter’s assistant (Kim Rossi Stuart) is pranked by his malicious fellow workers into believing he’s invisible, and the whole village is in on the joke. There’s a very dark turn at the end that’s consistent with Boccaccio’s own sensibilities, but it’s handled awkwardly, too gingerly, here. Next is the story of Ghismunda (a very good Kasia Smutniak), a widowed daughter who returns to her doting father (Lello Arena), but underestimates how possessive of her he’s become. It’s a pretty red-meat story of interesting, varied characters facing some real moral dilemmas, but the Tavianis just let the real consequences vaporize. Then comes a more successful episode – seemingly the slightest, a tale of wink-wink-nudge-nudge hypocrisy in a monastery of nuns comes closest to the kind of enlightened pull-the-rug-out bawdy graciousness that the rest of these could have manifested. It’s helped by the confident turn of Paola Cortellesi, usually a romantic comedy actress, as the monastery’s Abbess. The last is the tale of Federigo degli Alberighi (Josafat Vagni), a poor farmer whose falconry avocation enchants a sick boy and his beleaguered single mother (Jasmine Trinca). Yet again, a good story professionally executed that does nothing to genuinely distinguish itself.
If you’ve never seen Padre Padrone or Night Of The Shooting Stars (La Notte Di San Lorenzo) or Good Morning Babylon, then those are must-adds to your movie-hunting list. And if you’ve never seen a Tavianis film, than this one is a fair introduction, in a Reader’s-Digest-condensed-kinda-way. Their on-purpose rough edges, and their Italianate devotion to art, truth and beauty, leave them open to some hippie-punching, but they’re in the big leagues, make no mistake. Nonetheless, The Decameron is a “team” they should have handled with ease, and, tonight anyway, they disappointed us.
“Wondrous Boccaccio” screens on Friday, March 11th at 2:00 pm and Wednesday, March 16th at 7:45 pm.