Curious, painstakingly made and completely uninvolving, “Ilona Comes With the Rain” should serve as a warning to anyone trying to bring the literature of magic realism to the screen. Putting aside his films based on local history and politics (“Eagles Don’t Chase Flies,” “The Snail’s Strategy”), Colombian helmer Sergio Cabrera turns to a picaresque tale of three imaginary adventurers, based on a story by Latin American writer Alvaro Mutis. Result is alarmingly lightweight and inconsequential, though audiences well plunge into the film as exotic entertainment and enjoy it as a ripping (if overlong) tale. It should work well on TV.
Mutis, now 73, had a good deal of contact with Hollywood when he headed the Latin American TV divisions of Fox and Columbia before writing seven novels and numerous poems featuring the character Maqroll the sailor. “Ilona Comes With the Rain” is the end of a story cycle recounting the close friendship linking Maqroll with the Lebanese ship owner Abdul and the beautiful Macedonian-Polish adventurer Ilona.
Film unspools in the 1950s in Panama, where Maqroll (the dignified, gray-bearded Humberto Dorado) has been stuck since his ship was confiscated by the authorities. His luck continues to decline until he stumbles across Ilona (an effervescent Margarita Rosa De Francisco), flush with money after selling her cabaret in South Africa. Somehow they manage to contact the third member of their trio, Abdul (dashing Imanol Arias), who has been thrown into prison for arms smuggling.
Living barely this side of the law, sleeping either in jail or in luxury hotels, these three improbable characters float through the film like well-read refugees from the Foreign Legion. They speak all languages, know every port and have no roots, past or families to worry about.
Not content with getting Abdul released from prison, Ilona and Maqroll decide to help him realize his dream of buying a tramp steamer. To make money in a hurry, they set up a lavish bordello where the girls dress up as 1950s airline hostesses and the bedrooms are outfitted like the inside of a plane. It’s a nice gag, but extended far beyond its worth.
As admirably transgressive as the trio is, bound inseparably by fierce loyalty and so forth, none has the depth of character to make what they do matter in the slightest. The sparkling De Francisco, a TV performer making her screen debut, exudes personality and magnetism, but her Ilona is a pretty shell, a coquettish businesswoman without a soul. Dorado and Arias come off equally flat, as though peeled off the pages of Mutis’ book without being plumped up again.
Equally problematic is Larissa (Pastor Vega), former companion to a Sicilian princess who ends up practicing the oldest profession in Ilona and Maqroll’s brothel. Vega strives valiantly to bring out Larissa’s darkness and neurosis, but fails to show why she has such a sinister influence over Ilona. Like much else in the film, the audience is told what to feel, but not made to feel it.
Excellent cinematography by Gianni Mammolotti creates a sensuous make-believe Panama flashing with neon lights. A quartet of art directors earns kudos for the amusing sets, particularly the jet-age brothel. Luis Bacalov (“Il Postino”) drapes the score with lyrical, romantic mood pieces. Producer Sandro Silvestri maintains a tone of high production values throughout the pic, which was lensed in Cuba, Panama, Colombia and Italy.