Italy's current struggle with anti-immigration prejudice deserves screen exposure, but the confused and unfocused filmmaking of helmer Paolo Modugno in "The Secret Guest" undermines a well-meant case. Film's quick B.O. death on release in May signals little hope for its life on other shores.

Italy’s current struggle with anti-immigration prejudice deserves screen exposure, but the confused and unfocused filmmaking of helmer Paolo Modugno in “The Secret Guest” undermines a well-meant case. An irrelevant pre-credit musicvideo featuring rock singer Sarah Dietrich sets the tone for the maddening crosscuts between the main storyline and Dietrich’s concert performance on a beach. Film’s quick B.O. death on release in May signals little hope for its life on other shores.

Hadi (Ludgero Fortes Dos Santos) is a refugee trying to leave an unspecified border country that serves as a staging ground between the third and first worlds. He needs to bribe the corrupt harbor cop (Spiros Focas), so agrees to work for the local mafioso (Gigi Angelillo). While offloading crates from clandestine ships, Hadi learns the goods, marked as humanitarian aid, also contain weapons.

After accidentally killing the harbor cop in a struggle, Hadi dives into the sea. He swims nearly two miles before reaching a ship, where he’s taken aboard by Capt. Alliano (Corso Salani).

Alliano is new to his command, and his insecurity with his crew is mirrored by an unease within himself. Hadi’s appearance forces him to act decisively, and he hides him in his cabin. Alliano’s belief in his stowaway’s story is put to the test when inspector Solomos (Ben Gazzara, dubbed) boards the ship looking for the cop’s murderer.

Shipboard scenes are loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s short story, “The Secret Sharer,” but the film fails to capture the intense proximity of the two characters. Though not a newcomer to TV or film (including animation), Modugno appears to have no faith in his actors (a mistake) or his own directorial abilities (more justified), as he sabotages emotional build-up by frequently cutting away to Dietrich.

The music’s not bad, but the pseudo-poetic lyrics barely relate to the story. Nearly one quarter of the short running time is taken up with these superfluous scenes.

Fortes Dos Santos, known mostly for TV work, has a seductive charm, and his winning presence is the sole buoy to this misguided piece of flotsam. Gazzara, no stranger to Italian films, has little to do except look tired. Tech credits are average, with a TV look.

The Secret Guest

Italy

Production

An Esse&bi Cinematografica Distribuzione/Metacinema release of an Esse&bi Cinematografica production. Produced by Veronica Salvi. Directed by Paolo Modugno. Screenplay, Andrea Balzola, Rocco Aldemaro Barbaro, freely adapted from Joseph Conrad's short story "The Secret Sharer."

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Marco Carosi; editor, Claudio Di Mauro; music, Sarah Dietrich, Mark Hanna; production designer, Francesca R. Salvi; costume designer, Rita Lecconi; sound (Dolby Digital), Benito Alchimede. Reviewed on videocassette, Rome, Aug. 1, 2003. Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Corso Salani, Romina Mondello, Ludgero Fortes Dos Santos, Spiros Focas, Gigi Angelillo, Ben Gazzara.
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