Charting the friendship-cum-romance between an unhappily married man and a transvestite, Alessandro Benvenuti’s “Belle al Bar” makes judicious plot fodder of a situation that most mainstream Italo comedies would milk for its puerile gag potential. But despite its eccentric charms and sensitive approach, the film comes up a little short both as comedy and romantic fare, tagging it for moderate local success and scattered offshore sales.
Former cabaret comedian Benvenuti here puts in more consistent work in front of the camera than behind it, plying his character with a quirky sense of humor and a sympathetic open-mindedness. He plays Leo, an obsessively methodical art restorer with every possible nervous quirk and phobia, from psychosomatic asthma brought on by inhalation of cheese fumes to a dread of being locked in bathrooms.
Out of town on an extended work assignment, his fears become reality when he gets trapped in a public bathroom. Overcome with panic, he’s rescued by high-class hooker Giulia (Eva Robin’s), who’s been observing him from a distance. Taken unconscious to her home to recover, he wakes up to the startling revelation that she was formerly Giulio, his male cousin and childhood chum.
The relationship between them is well drawn. Giulia’s warmth and hospitality gives way to the admission she’s always loved him, and his reluctance to accept her as anything but a confused man progresses to curiosity, then to affection and beyond. Script acknowledges transgender issues and the emotional hitches and discrimination involved with a light but intelligent touch.
The insurmountable problem, however, lies in the labored opening half-hour, starting with a flat pre-titles sequence in which Leo is ambushed by Spanish live wire Simona (Assumpta Serna). A long-winded picture of the couple’s strained marriage follows, hampered by helmer’s failure to establish a workable comic rhythm. Leo’s lifeless marital background could have been dispensed with in one or two brief scenes.
Transvestite Robin’s (whose racy primetime talkshow was a clamorous flop on Italo TV two years back) flaunts an appealing screen presence in a first major screen role. Clean lensing and smartly designed interiors give the film a slick look. Patrizio Fariselli’s soulfully jaunty music also helps.