Star Maker, The (L'Uomo Nelle Stelle) (Italy, 1991) *** 1/2
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Written by Tornatore and Fabio Rinaudo. Photography, Dante Spinotti. Editing, Massimo Quaglia.Production design, Francesco Bronzi. Music, Ennio Morricone. Cast: Sergio Castellitto (Joe Morelli), Tiziana Lodato (Beata), many professionals and non-professionals. A Miramax release. In Italian with subtitles. 113 minutes. Rated R (sex)
Behind his battered but professional movie camera, Joe Morelli instructs his subjects: "Right profile. Left profile. Center profile." Center profile indeed! It makes as much sense as the streams of rural Sicilians who pose for what has been sold to them as a "screen test."
You know right away that they are all the victims of a fraud. In postwar Sicily, scam artist Joe covers villages and small towns. The phony talent scout arrives in a truck covered with Hollywood posters, its loudpseaker blaring come-ons. He sets up his equipment in a large tent, dazzles people with name-dropping ("great actors I have discovered") and especially with the astronomical earning of stars. He then offers to shoot screen tests that will be examined by a big film studio in Rome. " I promise nothing" says "Doctor" Morelli, but that won't kill any dreams.
He adds that a small service fee will be charged - 1,500 lire, which was about a dollar, not a trivial sum for impoverished Sicily around 1950.
Naivete, ignorance, hopelessness propel the locals into Joe's tent, but there are as many diverse reasons as there are faces among the wannabees. And voices. Joe records them on what must have been the last of the wire-recorders. (Its high fidelity is astounding). He has them learn a sentence or two from "Gone With the Wind," which adds to the ludicrousness and comedy of the situation, one made even more enjoyable for those who know Italian and are aware of Sicilian speech. (When Joe thinks that the local cop is on to him, he is relieved to find out that the man just wants his own test, to recite The Divine Comedy" which he had translated into Sicilian).
Sicilan-born Giuseppe Tornatore's second big screen feature (he came from photography and then TV), was the splendid, Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso." It was a hard act to follow, but the next movie, the entirely different "Everybody's Fine," was a very good picaresque road film about a Sicilian widower. Tornatore then did an excellent episode in an omnibus film. Then, the 1994 "A Pure Formality" broke with the writer-director's Sicilianness, was an ambitious, semi-Kafkaesque failure. With "The Star Maker" Tornatore follows the hard act of "Cinema Paradiso" with confidence and ease. Not with a sequel but by working the downside of the movies'magic.
The film's early section is one of light irony and mockery. Yet in a tour-de-force that is not at all obvious, Tornatore's sensitive script and Castellitto's layered acting never allow condescension toward the subjects. Joe may be fleecing his customers, Joe sometimes mutters " Animals, dumb beasts, rednecks!" but at the same time he has soft spots and a comprehension of the underprivileged. There's a duality here. Joe shoots his footage on outdated film, yet on the job he seems to have an odd sort of professional conscience.
Gradually, the film gets more serious as it goes from the amusing to the satirical to the pathetic. Joe is perceived as influential in the film trade. A penniless mother offers him her body, hoping to promote her daughter. A man in a Mussolini hat, delivers a Duce-style harangue. An aged veteran who never spoke after his return from the Spanish Civil War, suddenly finds his speech before the camera, and, in Spanish, speaks insultingly of Franco, lyrically of his "Fifth Regiment."
He is touching. Pathetic too is the gay hairdresser who states that all others, including bandits and women (sic) now have rights, but not the gays. Eventually though, this moment with Joe, this confession to the camera, result in courage and optimism, change the man's life for the better. Later too, Joe is reproached for hearing more confessions than any priest. But, like a priest, he does nor intrude on privacy -- and some confessions may have a salutary effect.
The encounters are not mechanically plotted. Tornatore can go from a sad moment to an outlandish scene, as when, in an episode worthy of The Book of Chutzpahs, bandits who rob Joe end up by paying him for screen tests. Or as when Joe must take pictures of a never-photographed, now dead, Mafia Don. The sendup of Mafiosi is a gem.
Pathos arrives again on the scene in the shapely form of Beata, convent-born and bred, age 15 or 18 (she doesn't know),a cleaning woman for many, including an older man who gives her the 1,500 lire for a screen test, in exchange of Beata giving him a look at her naked body. Joe, moved by her simplicity, shoots additional footage of her, as though -- in another key to the movie -- he himself took his scam for a reality. In intriguing ways, Beata now becomes, off and on, part of Joe's life.
More travels through Sicily show the land's uniqueness and beauty, never postcardish, never artsy, but as glimpses on what is part of the action.
Joe's manipulation of his customers is a scaled down version of politics and exploitation. He gives a ride to an educated doctor who tells him of a whore who cheats villagers, as all others do, from the government to the local authorities. "We don't want those who sell dreams, like you, to take advantage of us." There's always a bigger fish that swallows the next size down. Soon, Joe himself uis victimized.
"The Star Maker," has superior photography (especially in the tricky tent shots) and one of those scores in Italian movies that cleverly use American pop songs, "Stardust" in this case. Subtler, much less sentimental, nostalgic or audience-manipulating than "Cinema Paradiso," the new film will, for those reasons, not attain the earlier movie's popularity. A pity, since it speaks volumes on a specific society and its culture.
In a sense Joe's travels are like Gulliver's (but among the gullible) and even closer to the classic 1941 film "Sullivan's Travels" which concluded that the more miserable people are, the more they need to escape into fantasy. Like Joe's clients who have stars in their eyes and get their little moments of dreaming movie dreams.