Giuseppe Tornatore's affection and nostalgia for his native Sicily and its people was an intrinsic part of both "Cinema Paradiso" and "Everybody's Fine." His new feature, "The Star Maker" (reviewed under its original title, "The Star Man") indulges those feelings in much more abundant measure, unfortunately taking them to rather cloyingly cosmetic extremes.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s affection and nostalgia for his native Sicily and its people was an intrinsic part of both “Cinema Paradiso” and “Everybody’s Fine.” His new feature, “The Star Maker” (reviewed under its original title, “The Star Man”) indulges those feelings in much more abundant measure, unfortunately taking them to rather cloyingly cosmetic extremes. A gorgeously produced tourism commercial for the Italian island, this threadbare tale of a cocky con man’s painful comeuppance has very little heart and, consequently, conjures few real emotions. With tightening of its rambling midsection, the Miramax pickup may be improved, but its commercial constellation looks limited.

The title character is Joe Morelli (Sergio Castellitto), a Roman shyster who travels through the far-flung towns and villages of 1950s Sicily claiming to be a talent scout for Universalia Studios. Heralding his arrival with grandiloquent megaphone announcements about a life of wealth and fame just around the corner, he rounds up prospective dupes who pay him a fee to shoot a screen test.

Since the aspiring stars that step before his camera are poor and mostly illiterate, the “Gone With the Wind” excerpts he hands out for the tests are often replaced by their own stories. The camera lens pointed at them inspires revelations that range from tragic to comic to banal.

Having established the central story element, the film moves into an altogetherlooser narrative mode, as fragments from a series of lives are confessed.

This might have worked with the kind of honest, neo-realist approach the material would seem to suggest. Instead, the heavily scripted dialogue feels calculatedly quaint, and the actors — going for that simplistic peasant charm usually reserved for condescendingly stereotypical TV commercials — provide scant credibility.

Some of the characters’ spiels are genuinely funny, but few are genuine in any other way.

The story takes on a more concrete form again when Beata (Tiziana Lodato), a young woman with no family, stows away in Joe’s van. A lazy romance develops, with the cynical, unfeeling shyster doing little to return the girl’s affections.

His luck changes when a brigadier who fell for his scam earlier arrests him after discovering he’s a fake, and some local mobsters he wronged take their revenge.

Released from prison much later, he learns that Beata waited desperately for his return, before eventually going mad and being committed to an asylum.

A resourceful actor playing an uncharacteristically unsympathetic part, Castellitto is better than the script deserves, doubling as expansive showman and cold exploiter, and ultimately becoming the most pitiful victim of his own dishonesty and the empty dreams he fabricated.

The film’s basic lack of integrity presents an insurmountable problem, which is almost aggravated by its high-gloss technical prowess. This is risibly apparent in a sequence set in a squeaky-clean coastal fishing village, perhaps meant to evoke Visconti’s poverty-stricken locations for “La Terra Trema.”

That said, lenser Dante Spinotti’s work is rarely less than ravishing, lovingly capturing the colors and faces, the land and run-down architecture of the region.

Other plus factors are the razor-sharp editing of Massimo Quaglia and the warm-toned melodies of Ennio Morricone.

The Star Maker

Italian

Production

A Miramax (in U.S.)/Cecchi Gori Group Distribuzione (in Italy) release of a Mario & Vittorio Cecchi Gori presentation of a CGG Tiger Cinematografica production in association with RAI. Produced by Vittorio & Rita Cecchi Gori. Executive producer, Mario Cotone. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Screenplay, Tornatore, Fabio Rinaudo.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision), Dante Spinotti; editors, Tornatore, Massimo Quaglia; music, Ennio Morricone; art direction, Francesco Bronzi; costume design, Beatrice Bordone; sound (Dolby), Massimo Loffredi; assistant director, Marco Guidone. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 6, 1995. Running time: 113 min.

With

Joe Morelli - Sergio Castellitto
Beata - Tiziana Lodato
With: Franco Scaldati, Leopoldo Trieste, Clelia Rondinella, Tano Cimarosa , Nicola Di Pinto, Costantino Carrozza, Jane Alexander, Tony Sperandeo, Leo Gullotta.
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