Clearly a labor of love, John Turturro’s sophomore directorial effort “Illuminata” is an audacious, structurally messy and uneven film about a tightly knit acting troupe in turn-of-the century New York. A follow-up to “Mac,” which won the 1992 Camera d’Or, this meditation on love — its compromises, imperfections, sacrifices and rewards — feels like a personal film as Turturro and his wife, actress Katherine Borowitz, address intimate issues that affect a marriage. A colorful, illustrious cast should help secure theatrical distribution Stateside, though this problematic film, which vacillates quite a bit before finding its emotional center, will sharply divide critics, with European ones more likely to appreciate its originality than their American counterparts.
Turturro’s film “Mac,” which paid homage to his carpenter father as an artist , was obviously influenced by John Cassavetes in its thematics and stylistics. This new film continues to draw on Cassavetes (including the use of Ben Gazzara, who worked regularly with the late filmmaker), but is more specifically inspired by the classic French tradition of Feydeau’s bedroom farces, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, “Rules of the Game,” Marcel Carne’s poetic “Children of Paradise” and other works about the magical, all-consuming life in the theater.
The movie expresses as much affection for the craft and wizardry of actors onstage as it does for their tempestuous, neurotic personalities offstage, even dividing “Illuminata” into a prologue and three acts that vary in duration and mood.
A rather weak, rambling beginning introduces the large ensemble of players. Turturro plays Tuccio, the ambitious resident playwright of a struggling repertory company, owned by Astergourd and Pallenchio (Beverly D’Angelo and Donal McCann). He is anxious to stage his new play, “Illuminata,” which he wrote for Rachel (Borowitz), the company’s distinguished actress-manager and daughter of senior thesp Flavio (Gazzara), who’s lost his memory.
The owners claim his play is unfinished, but when young actor Piero (Matthew Sussman) collapses during a performance of “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Tuccio contrives to substitute his play for an audience that includes the powerful critic Bevalaqua (Christopher Walken), and the latter savages the work.
In the second act, which is the longest and least satisfying, Turturro and co-scripter Brandon Cole (who also worked on “Mac”) arrange amorous rendezvous for each of the leading characters.
Using cross-cutting, pic jumps around from the salon of Celimene (Susan Sarandon), the star who’s seducing Tuccio with promises of the international fame that will result when she does his play, to the bedroom of foppish critic Bevalaqua as he none-too-subtly lures Marco (Bill Irwin), the company clown. Simultaneously, the juvenile leads (Brits Rufus Sewell and Georgina Cates), veteran clown (Leo Bassi) and supporting actress (Aida Turturro) engage in their own sexual diversions.
It’s here that “Illuminata” severely misfires, for Turturro lacks (as an actor and director) the light touch and tricky tempo necessary for staging what’s meant to be a hilarious farce.
Surprisingly, story regains its emotional and dramatic core in the last act, which brings together forcefully its central issues: the exacting challenge of sustaining love once physical passion subsides, and the inherently insecure nature of relationships that are defined equally by public and private domains. As evidenced in “Mac,” Turturro is idealistic and romantic, dimensions he brings quite intensely to the role of the ambitious, egotistical playwright who’s forced to acknowledge his imperfections. Borowitz also has good moments as the uncompromisingly loyal woman whose life has been dedicated to loving Tuccio.
It’s almost impossible to single out individual performances in what’s clearly an ensemble piece. Still, fans of Walken will rejoice at the way he looks and moves as the flamboyantly gay critic; Sarandon is beautiful as the aging, amoral diva; D’Angelo is properly tough and sensitive as the theater owner; handsome Sewell seems ready to assume romantic leads; and Irwin is not clownish enough, but brings a measure of pathos and merriment to his encounters with the critic.
The look of the outdoor scenes is compromised, but Robin Standefer’s production design of the theater quarters and Donna Zakowska’s costumes are vigorously colorful in the manner of ’40s and ’50s pictures. With the exception of a few moments when the camera inexplicably shifts from sharp high angle to low angle, Harris Savides’ vibrant lensing compensates for several maladroitly written and staged scenes.