Achance encounter brings light and hope to two seemingly very different women in "The Acrobats" by Silvio Soldini, whose perspective on his characters' unease and dissatisfaction recalls the New German Cinema of the '70s as well as Michelangelo Antonioni's ruminations on human communication. The director's measured, intelligent approach will continue to earn him admirers, but Soldini's style remains rather glacially cerebral, and this third feature looks unlikely to break beyond the festival orbit traveled by his previous work. Grouped together with his 1990 debut, "The Peaceful Air of the West," and the 1993 follow-up, "A Soul Divided in Two," "The Acrobats" completes a trilogy about contempo characters attempting to change their lives. The new, uncharacteristically optimistic film also explores the divisions and, more important, the parallels between North and South.
The drama is divided into four parts, and the opening section is the least accessible, partly due to legit actress Licia Maglietta’s efficient but chilly characterization of Elena. A chemical analyst with a large cosmetics firm in northern Treviso, she has career satisfaction, an apparently perfect partner (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) and free dental work from her sensitive ex-husband (Roberto Citran), but still spends much of her time fighting off misery.
When she bumps 80-year-old Balkans immigrant Anita (Mira Sardoc) with her car one night, the cranky oldster shrugs off Elena’s offer of assistance. But she persists in bringing her groceries and gifts, eventually forging an odd friendship. Following Anita’s sudden death, Elena searches her belongings, looking for evidence of relatives to notify, and flies south to Taranto.
The drama becomes more involving as Maria (Valeria Golino) comes into focus. A passing acquaintance of Anita’s, Maria has problems with her violent husband (Manrico Gammarota) and her daydreaming daughter, Teresa (Angela Marraffa). Arriving during a conjugal fight, Elena finds Maria unreceptive and leaves. But Maria writes to apologize, and the two women’s mutual, undefined longing creates a bond between them.
Soldini sets up the peculiar affinity between well-heeled, educated Elena and lowly supermarket worker Maria, not just through their correspondence but through shared gestures and habits. But the liberating rapport between the two feels mechanical. Elena’s lack of warmth makes it hard to believe she would set off on the almost mystical journey she and Maria take with Teresa to Mont Blanc, to satisfy the child’s obsession with seeing her mind’s-eye vision of the mountainous North.
Playing against type, Golino does her best work in an Italian feature in some time. Looking hammered by the pressures of keeping a family together on a meager income, but clearly still open to experience, she brings the lofty, remote drama down to earth.
Beautifully lit by Soldini’s regular d.p., Luca Bigazzi, the classy production is marred by the overbearing use of Giovanni Venosta’s rather dated, avant-garde music, which irritates with its high-pitched, buzzing strings and twitchy vocals. Title refers to a statue of three female acrobats in the Taranto museum.