Following up on his 1997 sci-fi cyber journey “Nirvana,” Gabriele Salvatores provides further evidence of a flair for visual invention and skilled deployment of effects that makes him perhaps unique among Italian directors. Love, pain and obsession create an altered reality in this surreal black comedy-drama-romance, in which the past, present and fantasy life of a man with abnormally large incisors become irrevocably confused. Hallucinatory trip is abrasive, grotesque and graphically bloody; for many, it will be as much fun as root canal. But its technical accomplishment and imaginative look should steer it into midnight fest slots and perhaps ease the way for limited commercial dates.
With his last two features, Salvatores has significantly distanced himself stylistically from the work that put him on the map — in particular, his thirtysomething generational trilogy, “Marrakech Express,” “Turne” and “Mediterraneo” — while maintaining much of the philosophical curiosity and countercultural spirit that underscored those films.
Protagonist here is Antonio (Sergio Rubini), whose self-consciousness about his generous dental endowments stems from childhood, when kids taunted him with names like Bugs, Beaver and Bucky. The first sign of the physically jarring approach that characterizes the film comes when young Antonio attempts to smash his front teeth on the ruins of Pompeii. He is stopped by his beautiful French mother (Anouk Grinberg), who dies when he’s only 12, leaving him with a fixation that endures into adulthood.
Pathologically jealous Antonio’s relationship with his lover, Mara (Anita Caprioli), also borders on the obsessive. During an argument over his accusation that she’s being unfaithful with her dentist, Luca (Tom Novembre), she slams an ashtray into Antonio’s face and shatters his incisors.
Thus begins a harrowing odyssey from one dentist to another to cap his front teeth, starting with Luca and arriving at Dr. Cagnano (Paolo Villaggio), an elderly butcher with primitive equipment whom Antonio recalls from his childhood. Punctuating this squirm-inducing run of blood-drenched dental tampering are the wanderings of Antonio’s addled mind, from paranoid exchanges that push Mara away to ghosts from the past and romantic imagined encounters with his mother. His orthodontic mission eventually leads Antonio full circle back to Luca, who makes a strange discovery about a new set of teeth embedded in his gums that may provide the opportunity to bite into a new life.
The material and approach here seem designed to grate the nerves and senses, at times resembling the darkly suffocating world of one of Terry Gilliam’s films. While “Teeth” is thus somewhat emotionally remote, it’s never uninteresting. Salvatores deserves credit at the very least as a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from risks in tackling novelist Domenico Starnone’s bizarre, off-putting story and in his willingness to go to gory extremes to show the links between love and pain, emotional and physical suffering and the need to free oneself from the past.
Set in an unspecified city but shot in a Naples given all the craggy, decaying surfaces of a neglected mouth, the film provides constant visual stimulation with its rich, deep colors and lenser Italo Petriccione’s unconventional camera angles. The hazy, warped-reality aspect of the film is enhanced by Indian-flavored transcendental music and occasional use of old standards by Procol Harum and Deep Purple. Massimo Fiocchi’s livewire editing also helps sustain the feverish energy. Cast is strong, if perhaps a little overshadowed by the film’s elaborate, dreamlike world, with Rubini showing again, as in “Nirvana,” his skill at creating edgy, intriguingly crazed characters.