What are all these famous actors doing in a small, undistinguished drama like “Between Strangers”? Given the film’s modest quality, one can’t help but imagine that 29-year-old tyro director Edouardo Ponti had a persuasive ally in mom Sophia Loren, who headlines a dazzling, if underused, cast. The unconnected stories of three Toronto women fighting their personal demons has all the dramatic credibility of a TV movie, and the small screen is where it will probably feel most at home after exhausting its star-power in brief theatrical bows. Its Venice debut out of competition was appreciated far more by the public than by the critics.
Olivia (Loren), a gray-haired housewife married to wheelchair-bound John (Pete Postlethwaite), has repressed her talent as an artist ever since, as a girl, she had to give up a child born out of wedlock. John, who is not exactly Mr. Sensitivity, orders her to forget the “nonsense” that is resurfacing as urgent pain. Olivia’s only confidante is cheerful French gardener Max (Gerard Depardieu), who admires her sketches between planting geraniums in the park and chasing dogs out of his flowerbeds.
Natalia (Mira Sorvino) is a young photojournalist whose picture of a tear-streaked Angolan child has made the cover of Time magazine. Her worldly father Alexander (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a famous photographer himself, wants to celebrate, but Natalia is tormented because she wasn’t able to save the child’s life.
Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) is a famous cellist who has abandoned her husband and daughter to wreak revenge on her father (Malcolm McDowell), a haggard old man just released from prison. He served 22 years for beating her mother to death, but now has a heart of gold, as she discovers when it’s too late.
Linking the stories — but not really — is a chance encounter between the women, and a mysterious little girl who turns up giggling at unexpected moments.
Script cycles smoothly from one cliche to another, relying on the cast’s famous faces to create interest in the undeveloped characters. The only perf with a core of realism comes from Postlethwaite, who suggests that John’s monstrous egotism and repressive personality may have subtle roots in his wife’s attitude. Loren, fascinating as ever to observe on screen, wears a mask of Greek tragedy even when stocking shelves in a supermarket; Unger is similarly directed to go Hellenic in her homicidal hatred for Dad. As the young photographer with moral qualms, Sorvino is a tad more restrained, while Depardieu, Brandauer and McDowell basically act on cue.
Tech work, even that of leading Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, is uniformly smooth and unobtrusive, underlining pic’s television destination.