An intriguing, densely layered costumer set in 18th-century Sicily, “The Council of Egypt” is both a fine adaptation of Leonardo Sciascia’s celebrated 1963 novel and a thoughtful meditation on history, politics and the Italian spirit. Though pic is probably too meaty for auds who prefer short and simple fare, helmer Emidio Greco ably exploits the gifts of popular comic Silvio Orlando (the suicidal patient in “The Son’s Room”) to lighten up the story and maximize its entertaining side. His deadpan portrait of the foxy Italian able to turn every opportunity to his advantage, coupled with pic’s dazzling period sets and costumes, should ensure festival interest and arthouse sales offshore.
The work of Sicilian writer Sciascia has proved rich soil for many directors, including Elio Petri (“Todo Modo”), Gianni Amelio (“Open Doors”) and Greco himself in “A Simple Story” (1991). The Borges-like “The Council of Egypt,” faithful to the novel, captures both the writer’s blunt modern irony and his complex view of history, seen as an imposture written by the ruling classes.
In 1782, the Moroccan ambassador to the court of Naples is shipwrecked off the Sicilian coast. A priest from Malta, Don Giuseppe Vella (Orlando), is called in to interpret for the nabob and show him the sights and salons of Palermo. Though hardly the Arabic expert he’s cracked up to be, he uses his imagination when words fail him, while pondering a way to continue enjoying the high life after the diplomat departs.
The chance comes when his lightheaded patron, Monsignor Airoldi (Renato Carpentieri), asks the ambassador to examine an old manuscript handwritten in Arabic. Though it’s only a commonplace Life of the Prophet, Don Giuseppe claims it’s a precious lost codex detailing the history of Sicily, and procures the long job of “translating” it into Italian.
The literary scam turns out to have profitable consequences. Don Giuseppe pretends the “Council of Egypt” codex contains revelations of how the bluebloods usurped their property from the king in times gone by. As a result, snobbish Sicilian aristos who once looked down on the priest now lavish him with gifts to get their families’ names removed from the potentially damning manuscript.
Not far away, the French Revolution is brewing and aristocratic heads are about to roll; in Sicily, a revolutionary spirit linked to French illuminism is sweeping over the land. Representing this current of egalitarian thinking is a dashing lawyer, Francesco Paolo Di Blasi (hawk-eyed stage thesp Tommaso Ragno), lover to the flirtatious Countess of Regalpetra (Martine Delterme). Like Don Giuseppe’s literary deceptions, his revolutionary plot to turn the country into a republic is destined to fail in a dramatic, moving and well-told climax.
If Orlando’s perf embodies the master bluffer, Ragno’s as the serious idealist lends credence to a noble side of the Italian character. (Both characters are based on real people.) The two are backed up by an enjoyable supporting cast playing insufferable nobles and gullible clergymen. As the countess, Delterme reps in self-assured style the libertine femmes of the day, with low-cut dresses and fans painted with pornographic scenes.
Costume designers Agnes Gyarmathy and Ivo Crnoyevic have a field day complementing Andrea Crisanti’s opulent production design. Director of photography Marco Sperduti’s warm lighting bolsters the story’s epic dimension; and, though running well over two hours, the film feels faster with Bruno Sarandrea’s editing. Luis Bacalov’s score blends Oriental and period music in a listenable way.