Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

CARO DIARIO (DEAR DIARY) ****. Written, directed and co-produced by Nanni Moretti. Photography, Giuseppe Lanci. Music, Nicola Piovani. Editing, Mirco Garrone, Costumes, Maria Rita Barbera. Sets, Marta Maffucci. Cast: Nanni Moretti, Renato Carpentieri, et al. A Fine Line release. In Italian with subtitles. 98 min. Not rated (could be G).

You know how it is. Sometimes you embrace someone whom you meet "live" for the first time. In my case, Nanni Moretti is the only filmmmaker whom I hugged at first sight. That was at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1979 I believe, after the screening of his "Ecce Bombo" that enchanted all of us with its intelligence, wit and originality. And when I say "hug" I mean the works, Latin-style, with vigorous slapping of the back and vocalized expressions of joy.

Moretti (b. 1953) then hardly known outside Italy, has since become a cult figure among Western cinephiles, though not among film-lovers in the USA. We lag terribly in international filmic knowledge.

He was totally self-taught in movie-making, after high school made three shorts in Super 8, then one Super 8 feature ("I am Self-Sufficient" ). This, later blown up to 16mm, started his reputation as the enfant terrible of Transalpine cinema. "Ecce Bombo," (16mm) followed, then films in the standard 35mm format ""Sweet Dreams," "Bianca," "The Mass is Ended," "Palombella Rossa," "La Cosa," (16mm political documentary ) and the 1993 "Caro Diario."

Like Woody Allen, to whom he is often compared (but only for the broadest of reasons), Moretti writes his films, plays in them, pours out his thoughts, preoccupations and problems, from surrealistically complex to realistically familiar. With a remarkable eye and ear, blend of humor and seriousness and tongue-in-cheekness, Moretti is nothing if not a film genius. Also like Allen or Buster Keaton, Moretti' perceptions of the outrageous are laser-sharp, but they are delivered with utter simplicity and nary an underlining.

"Caro Diario" has three parts, independent but linked by Moretti's presence and personality. Part I , "On My Vespa," finds him wandering by scooter in a Rome near emptied by the vacation exodus of August. He looks around, talks to himself, addresses strangers, observes. Few movies are playing. In an Italian flick people his age gripe and apologize for their lives. Nanni protests : "No, I am a superb 40-year old!"

Lovingly he explores various neighborhoods His running commentary lightly covers urban planning, politics, economics, class distinctions, aesthetics, nostalgia, ideas for films...

People are dancing the merengue in a street. He joins the singers, states his love of dancing ... and soon after runs into his idol Jennifer Beals and her husband. The conversation is hilarious.

He sees the film "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." A pedantic critic has raved about it and other movies. Nanni has collected the reviews. In a Felliniesque scene, Nanni, at the critic's bedside, reads his idiotic comments aloud and reduces the writer to a gibbering wreck. Then, switching from games to a fuss-less pilgrimage, he drives (in real time) through a blighted landscape to the unkempt spot where filmmaker Pasolini had been murdered.

In Part II, "Islands," Moretti seeks a change while planning as new movie. He goes to the Aeolian Islands, that volcanic group off Sicily's north shore. First stop is Lipari, where his friend Gerardo has been studying Joyce's "Ulysses" for 11 years, and has been away from TV for 30. But Lipari is full of the absurdities of television and its noise pollution. It is congested with traffic that contrasts with Rome's lovely emptiness. So off to Salina.

On the boat, Gerardo can't escape the omnipresent TV, watches a soap and is hooked. In Salina, yuppie-type couples limit themselves to one child for whom they develop a cult expressed in psychobabble. They masochistically accept the tyranny of the little ones. Delicious and delirious, with very funny details.

Nanni, alone, kicks a football. Behind him, a ship seems to glide on land. This must be one of the best tributes ever to the late Federico Fellini.

The two friends escape to Stromboli (more tribute to the Rossellini- Ingrid Bergman scandal than to their film "Stromboli" itself?) where (never mind logic) Gerardo, now obsessed by TV soaps shouts questions to American tourists about "The Bold and the Beautiful." Next they land in Panarea where a trendy lady invites them to a great party "in honor of bad taste." The two men jump back into the boat.

Alicudi, the most primitive of the islands, has no roads, no electricity, no TV. Contemplation and philosophical discourses be damned. Gerardo flees, yelling for lamps, radios, elevators, TV.

Part II "Doctors" is serious. It deals with Moretti's own, real battle with a cancerous tumor (which he has apparently licked). It started with a skin rash , misdiagnosed by all, from the Eminent Doctor to the Great Dermatologist to the Prince of Skin Diseases to the best clinic to Chinese acupuncturists. They all load down Moretti with tons of medicine, always different from doctor to doctor. It takes more than a year for his true condition to surface. Sly, ironic treatment of the medical profession is a must for all physicians. How Moretti manages to make comedy from illness is a tour de force.

In fact the entire movie is a tour de force, only so casually put together, so improvised in feeling and so effortless, that the sleight of hand remains invisible. Moretti is a faux naif a "pretend naive" person who asks seemingly simple questions, takes things as they come, does not dramatize.

Italian life is often like an opera, and Italians can hold the record for getting excited. But when an Italian is cool, he is really cool. Moretti, playing his own protean protagonist, has adventures that are a played-down Odyssey. He moves through the physical, cultural, political and social landscape of modern Italy and in his peregrinations quietly fills his film with metaphors, symbols and gently implied criticism. It is all the more deft as Moretti, always a leftist but not one with blinders, stands outside all mainstreams. "I think I will always be part of a minority. I love people but I don't believe in the majority of the people."

An interesting footnote to "Caro Diario" is that its is a very rare case that a picture that has nothing that anyone could object to (i.e. language, violence or sex) has gotten such critical acclaim.

For this movie, Moretti received the most prestigious Best Director Award at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. It won Best Italian Picture at last June's David di Donatello Awards * and was nominated as Best Foreign Film at the French Cesars. One wonders why the Hollywood Academy did not do the same. Too subtle for them perhaps? But after what the Oscar people did to "Hoop Dreams" there is no sense in trying to make sense.

* At Italy's Donatello Awards, Best Italian Director was Carlo Verdone for "Perdiamoci di Vista"; Best Foreign Film was "In the Name of the Father"; Best Foreign Director, Jim Sheridan for "In the Name of the Father"; Best Foreign Actor, Anthony Hopkins for "The Remains of the Day"; Best Foreign Actress, Emma Thompson, "The Remains of the Day."