Illuminata (1998) ***
Directed by John Turturro. Written by Brandon Cole and Turturro, from Cole's play. Photography, Harris Savides. Editing, Michael Berenbaum. Production design, Robin Standefer. Music, William Bolcom with Arnold Black ans others. Produced by John Penotti and Turturro. Cast: Katherine Borowitz (Rachel, the star and manager), Beverly D'Angelo (Astergourd, theater owner), John Turturro (Tuccio), Christopher Walken (Bevalaqua, the critic), Ben Gazzara (Old Flavio, actor), Bill Irwin (Marco, actor), Donal McCann (Pallenchio, theater owner), Susan Sarandon (Celimene, aging diva), Rufus Sewell (Dominique) and Georgina Cates (Simone) (juvenile leads), Leo Bassi (Beppo, the clown), Aida Turturro (Marta), David Thornton (Orlandini) (supporting players), et al. An Artisan Entertainment release. 112 minutes. R (language, sex)
Pirandello might have called it A Dozen Thespians in Search of Love. You could also call it Post-Modern Commedia dell'arte, what with improvisations, marionettes, and physical comedy. It is also a part-time descendant of the Theatre of the Absurd. Whatever the labels, it is most certainly Turturro and Company's love song to the theater.
Actor Turturro had previously directed one movie, also written by him and his friend Brandon Cole. That was Mac (1992) which is very good, heartfelt but was not circulated widely enough. For sundry reasons the 1998 Illuminata was released only recently.
IIlluminata is set in New York City, in 1905. Its multiple focus is a single, struggling, probably talented repertory troupe. As they are ending their Cavalleria Rusticana -- not the Mascagni opera but the 1884 play by Giovanni Verga -- they are manoeuvered by their playwright-in-residence Tuccio (Turturro) into performing next his latest, yet unfinished opus, Illuminata.
What goes on on that stage, behind and around it, defies description because of its zig-zags. Brandon Cole's original play was entitled Imperfect Love, which sums up matters, more or less. Life and theater are juxtaposed, contrasted, equated, complemented. No one is immune from stage worship or love in various forms.
The main thread is the love of Tuccio for lead actress Rachel, who in real life is Turturro's wife. Young, middle-aged, older people are in a constant hubbub which melds (or tries to) the realities of life and those of the theater. An extreme case is Christopher Walken as despised, feared critic. He is a fop, has hair like a bad version of an Oscar Wilde cut, and pursues a younger actor. Everything he does or says is funny. Example: "They say I like nothing. It's not true. I like chocolate and Caravaggio. " Walken's ever-odd appearance, with his ambiguous, hairless face, reaches a peak here.
Most of the players are mature, a wonderful relief from teens, babes and twenty-somethings. It is wonderful to see older, experienced and fine actors like Walken, the great Ben Gazzara, the charming Susan Sarandon. She is oddly named Celimene, after the character in Moliere's The Misanthrope. (I don't know what is the point of this conceit). Their roles are quite unlike their past portrayals. I wish Rip Torn were also in the cast.
The women, from ingenue Georgina Cates to Turturro's plump cousin Aida Turturro, the lovely Beverly D'Angelo, and of course the enchanting Katherine Borowitz, are, each in a special way, "real women" and most appealing. Various situations also bring about a celebration of exposed breasts, from A to D cup -- and also give rise to some fine farcical scenes.
Turturro, in what we wish were a sign of the times, but is only mildly so, marks again the pleasurable notion of cinema not being exclusively limited to pretty-boys. Abroad, this happens with actors like France's Daniel Auteuil. Not that John T. is ugly here. His beard is a flattering argument for not using razors. And his intensity shows in his acting, writing and directing.
Too much intensity tends to overwhelm and obscure the plot. I quote Turturro: "For me, Katherine's (Borowitz) face and sensibility, delicate but strong, intelligent and grateful, and her modesty were the inspiration, the soul of the piece. I tried to build everything around her. "
What a Valentine to a spouse! Let us pray that unlike almost all actors, those two will not ever divorce. On the other hand the "building of everything" could have used more mortar and architecture. Turturro continues: " I looked at Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir's masterpiece, read the script of it, and was struck by the fact that he was inspired by Georges Feydeau's farces and then took that structure to explore serious themes. "
As a specialist and admirer of both Feydeau and Renoir, I believe that the film does not succeed in this respect. Renoir's very French film is a mordant but tolerant satire of French society, from celebrities to the idle rich, from old soldiers to new lovers, from the ruling classes to their copy-cat servants in an Upstairs, Downstairs fashion. . It is all directed with clarity and cool, even when agitation reigns.
Feydeau's hilarious comedies spare no one but they are built like clockwork so fine-tuned that his plays' extravagant complications can be followed without a single "what? who? why? where?. "
By contrast, this movie is a maze, a non-stop pile-up of people, dialogue --which can drag a bit, -- actions and tributaries to the main stream that could, and probably will, confuse you, especially since within the limited space of the settings there's no limit to the number of scenes.
The settings are very good. So are the photography, the costumes, the music and its use. Note that the main music credits go to William Bolcom, a major American composer who just wrote the score for the opera version of A View From the Bridge.
An oddity of this work is that its entire ambience and context are so overwhelmingly Italian or Italianate that some absent-minded viewers might miss the references to New York and think it all takes place in Italy.
Many scenes or parts thereof ought to delight spectators. Other viewers may have mixed feelings because of the construction. They probably wish that Illuminata would illuminate us more than it does.
One thing is clear to me: Never start an affair with a thespian. You will never know (nor will she or he) what is performance and what is reality.