A major departure for both director Gabriele Salvatores and Italian cinema, "Nirvana" is a visually impressive, existential sci-fi yarn about the renegade protagonist of a virtual-reality mind game and his repentant creator.

A major departure for both director Gabriele Salvatores and Italian cinema, “Nirvana” is a visually impressive, existential sci-fi yarn about the renegade protagonist of a virtual-reality mind game and his repentant creator. Uncommonly rich in design, invention and ideas, this considerable technical achievement is shortchanged by a poorly structured story, which never engages to the degree it should. But genre fans who go for futuristic fare with a Euro flair should find much to enjoy, provided distribs can keep the pic (pre-sold to 36 territories) from slipping into the cracks between arthouse and mainstream.

A techno creation with the soul of a hippie intellectual, the film is an aggressively modern cyber-odyssey through both real and virtual worlds, laced with many of “Mediterraneo” director Salvatores’ standard fascinations, such as Eastern culture and religion, ’60s counterculture, midlife introspection and escape. Also in evidence are his recurrent themes concerning the depersonalization of contempo society, the desire to eliminate modern man’s ills and the impossible quest for utopian harmony.

Setting is three days before Christmas in the near future, in a chaotic, overpopulated metropolis known as the Northern Agglomerate. As the deadline looms for vidgame inventor Jimi (Christopher Lambert) to consign his new baby, Nirvana, to his ruthless multinational bosses, a glitch develops. A computer virus infects the game’s hero, Solo (Diego Abatantuono), equipping him with a human consciousness.

Solo is dismayed to realize he is a virtual character and not a human being. He begs Jimi to erase the game before it gets mass-marketed, condemning him to live out the same events ad infinitum. Vulnerable following the sudden departure of his lover, Lisa (Emmanuelle Seigner), and plagued by his own self-doubt, Jimi agrees.

He abandons his cushy minimalist pad, where the company’s Big Brother-like computer monitors his every move, and heads for the seedy Arab quarter. Here, he tracks down databank bandit Joystick (Sergio Rubini) and, later, ace hacker Naima (Stefania Rocca), whom he enlists to help him destroy the game’s prototype. Love rears its head when Jimi is given a memory chip of the now-deceased Lisa, which Naima loads into her cranial computer, creating a blur between the two women.

From very early on, the film kicks into flight mode as Jimi and his accomplices flee from cops and company heavies while Solo dodges assailants and tampers with the course of events in the progressively dangerous game, choosing hooker Maria (Amanda Sandrelli) as his unlikely ally. But constant movement is no substitute for a full-bodied story, and the shortage of interesting plot developments makes for an increasingly numbing and repetitive midsection.

The weakness is aggravated by problems of dialogue clarity. The pic’s complex sound design provides a sustained aural bombardment of music, ambient noise and sound effects that makes much of what is being said literally impossible to decipher. As a consequence, aside from the characters’ larger missions, many individual episodes are frustratingly confusing.

But even while remaining cold and distancing on a narrative level, “Nirvana” supplies nonstop visual stimulation of a kind never before approached in Italian film and of a sophistication that hints at far greater expense than the declared $10 million budget.

Digital effects are first-rate, and production designer Giancarlo Basile has done a remarkable job creating the huge multiethnic city, zoned off into areas like Marrakesh, Shanghai Town and Bombay Town. (Sets were constructed in a massive former Alfa Romeo plant in Milan.) Color-tinted B&W segs from the Nirvana game are especially sharp.

Comparisons between the setting here and that of “Blade Runner” and the more recent “Strange Days” are obvious, but one of Salvatores’ prime subjects is contamination, and the pic reflects this with its endless run of film citations and derivations. In an assembly of outstanding technical contributions, special credit should go to lenser Italo Petriccione and editor Massimo Fiocchi.

Given the not-entirely satisfactory development of their characters, most of the cast prove surprisingly effective, suggesting a commitment to the project that makes its short-reaching script more of a disappointment.

Rubini has never been better used than as the volatile blind angel, who sees through optical microcameras, while the often overpowering Abatantuono brings a shrewd vein of humor. Newcomer Rocca is both gutsy and seductive, and Sandrelli spins an amusing riff on the classic bimbo, content to dwell within a limited sphere. The weak link is Lambert, a serviceable, even charismatic lead, but rather one-dimensional and lacking in any real edge. Several thesps from Salvatores’ previous films crop up in cameos. Seigner is fine in a minor role.

“Nirvana” is the first Italian feature launched with its own Internet site (http://www.nirvana.it), as well as an accompanying CD-ROM version and planned online games.

Nirvana

Italian-French

Production

A Cecchi Gori Distribuzione release (in Italy) of a Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori/Maurizio Totti presentation of a CGG Tiger Cinematografica (Rome)/Colorado Film (Milan)/Davis Film (Paris) production. (International sales: Capitol Films, London; North American sales: Cecchi Gori, Rome.) Produced by Vittorio and Rita Cecchi Gori, Maurizio Totti. Executive producer, Totti. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores. Screenplay, Salvatores, with the collaboration of Gloria Corica, Pino Cacucci.

Crew

Camera (Cinecitta color), Italo Petriccione; editor, Massimo Fiocchi; music, Mauro Pagani, Federico De Robertis; art direction, Giancarlo Basile; costume design, Patrizia Chericoni, Florence Emir, and (for Lambert, Abatantuono, Seigner) Giorgio Armani; sound (Dolby Digital SR), Tullio Morganti; sound design, Jean-Christophe Casalini; digital effects, Digitalia, Fabrizio Donvito; special effects, Victor Togliani; biomechanical prosthetic design, Sergio Stivaletti; assistant director, Fabio Scamoni. Reviewed at Quirinale Cinema, Rome, Jan. 13, 1997. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Jimi - Christopher Lambert Solo - Diego Abatantuono Joystick - Sergio Rubini Naima - Stefania Rocca Maria - Amanda Sandrelli Lisa - Emmanuelle Seigner
With: Claudio Bisio, Ugo Conti, Paolo Rossi, Antonio Catania, Gigio Alberti, Silvio Orlando
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