(German soundtrack version)
(German soundtrack version)
The long-awaited second directorial effort of thesp Klaus Maria Brandauer checks in as a conventional European arthouse film that’s stronger on pretty images than story or substance. Based on Thomas Mann’s autobiographical novella, this costumer is too much a collage of Italian snapshots between the wars to touch a wide audience. Pic could, however, do some business among its film-buff target audience, based on name leads and stunning photography alone.
Story limns the holiday visit by a well-known liberal German writer, Bernhard Fuhrmann (Julian Sands), and his family of three to the Italian seaside resort town Torre di Venere in the ’20s. While there, he encounters fascism’s creeping intolerance and the sad decline of liberal European values into a vulgar kind of barbarism.
Italian guests at the luxury hotel want Fuhrmann and his family moved to an outer building: His 8-year-old daughter caused a scandal when she took her clothes off on the beach. Subsequently, the hotel director (Philippe Leroy Beaulieu) is killed and replaced by a younger man with fascist leanings. And the local police chief (Rolf Hoppe) is an infantile idiot who senses future openings for his tyrannical tendencies.
Amid all this pops up the crippled but mesmerizing magician, Cipolla (Brandauer), who gradually fascinates — and even changes the lives of — some of the characters. There’s also the side story of the tragic, unfulfilled love of a waiter, Mario (Pavel Greco), for the police chief’s beautiful niece, Silvestra (Valentina Chico).
Unfortunately, the various anecdotes never come together and, in a film entirely peopled by supporting characters, none really gets a chance to tell his or her story.
Hungarian lenser Lajos Koltai’s beautiful photography makes every scene a small pleasure. But though the pic’s theme is the encroachment of fascism on European culture, the audience is left in the dark about the subject by film’s end.
Most impressive scene comes early on — the annual waiters’ race in which servers run through town carrying trays with wine and spaghetti. Most of the sequence is shot above the heads of observers on the street. Irritatingly, Brandauer maintains this distance between camera and action throughout the film.
Brandauer’s own (relatively small) part as the magician also falls victim to this distancing: He performs in an indirect manner, with little visible effort — understatement that doesn’t work.
Sands seems lost in a role that mostly requires him to utter functional lines such as, “We leave tomorrow.”
Most other perfs are good, especially Leroy Beaulieu as the hotel director, played with precision and elan.
Tech credits are excellent, though editing by Tanja Schmidbauer could be tighter. Scoring by Brandauer’s son, Christian, is functional.
Pic was shot with actors using their native languages.