The most accomplished film yet from Neapolitan director Mario Martone (whose somewhat obscure “L’amore molesto” competed at Cannes in 1995), “Rehearsal for War” is a brilliant stylistic tour de force that bracingly advances the cause of the New Italian Cinema. Pic burns with a strong — at times exhilarating — moral force and clarity as it asks how theater can confront the tragic war in former Yugoslavia. The chances of such an uncompromising film jumping from critical kudos to anything beyond the upper crust of arthouses, however, are regrettably slim: “Rehearsal” offers food for thought and discussion rather than emotional involvement. Italo distrib Lucky Red is platforming the film in major Italian cities just before its international bow in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar.
“Rehearsal for War’s” story shifts fluidly between the private lives of a group of Neapolitan stage actors and their rehearsals for a wartime performance of the ancient Greek drama “Seven Against Thebes” in Sarajevo. Although the theme of a stage play commenting on larger reality has been done to death in movies, Martone attacks it from a number of fresh angles. Pic opens unpromisingly with a Living Theater-style scene of the thesps doing sensitivity training exercises in a grungy garage rehearsal space, but story soon catches the viewer up in newer characters and themes.
In 1994, Leo (Andrea Renzi), the play’s young director, has arranged with a theater director in Sarajevo to have his Italian troupe perform in the dangerous city. The performance is being done as an act of solidarity, with the actors being paid next to nothing. Vittorio (Marco Baliani), the most intense thesp and Leo’s confidant, lends moral support during the difficult rehearsals of Aeschylus’ play about a city under siege and a civil war.
In Sarajevo, theaters have been kept open as a sign of cultural defiance. There’s no need to talk down to the Bosnian audience, reasons Leo, who keeps searching for a key to directing the play effectively. Actually, the guerrilla theater of the penniless ancient Thebans is much closer in spirit to Sarajevo than it is to Naples’ rich city theater, and Martone emphasizes the ironic differences between Sarajevo and Naples theater by showing the lavish sets and cos-tumes designed for Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” being staged by the powerful and pompous Franco Turco (Toni Servillo). Pic underlines the hollowness of mainstream theater, but also the constant flow of actors, technicians and even money between it and the underground group.
Talented young thesp Diego (Roberto De Francesco) and diva Sara Cataldi (Anna Bonaiuto) leave the moneyed production to join Leo’s unpaid effort, while Leo’s bubbly lead actress, Luisella (Iaia Forte), switches to Turco’s cast. A famous set designer (Sergio Tramonti) works on both plays, one for money and the other out of conviction.
Just outside the rehearsal door lies the enormous stage repped by Naples’ streets, which the camera captures in all their noisy spontaneity. There are inexplicable fights involving the whole neighborhood; housewives screaming from balconies; pushers peddling drugs; a police round-up; a dramatic drive-by murder. Martone takes pains to show how this reality continually affects the anguished rehearsals, just as the war in Sarajevo, one imagines, affects the theater there.
Several years in the making, pic evolved from a real legit staging of “Seven Against Thebes” with the same cast that Martone directed in 1995-96. Play’s rehearsals were filmed, and the screenplay was written around them. Pasquale Mari’s cinematography is particularly distinctive and effective, and pic actually benefits greatly from having been shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm. The graininess of the images, minimal lighting and shallow focus give the characters, streets and crumbling buildings a guerrilla quality.
Shooting in Naples’ infamous Spanish Quarter, Martone and Mari create a constant feeling of danger outside the protected area of the theater where the actors barricade themselves. Inevitably, this recalls the war in Bosnia, especially when thesps dressed in army fatigues carry plastic-wrapped “corpses” on the stage and weep over the unburied dead. Other docu elements include some unstaged street scenes and the striking real life Neapolitan faces and dialect of the extras.
Cast is uniformly excellent, with each thesp playing the double role of actor and character with a moral tension that never resorts to stereotypes.