All of Italian-based helmer Ferzan Ozpetek’s films have a message of social tolerance, but none tips the balance so blatantly toward Western Union as the uneven “Sacred Heart.” Actress Barbora Bobulova carries the film with aplomb as a ruthless captain of industry who suddenly discovers her calling is to help the poor and needy. Packed with production values and family values in equal measure, pic looks likely to follow Ozpetek’s 2003 hit, “The Window Opposite,” as mainstream theatrical product in Europe with primetime TV appeal.
Irene Ravelli (Bobulova) is the steel-hearted heir to a real-estate empire left to her by her father and co-run with her tough-cookie aunt, Eleonora (Lisa Gastoni). As pic opens, they have just pushed two business rivals to suicide.
Irene looks forward to gutting her family’s historic palazzo in central Rome and restructuring it into 30 mini-apartments. But when the old butler unlocks the door to her late mother’s room, she begins to have second thoughts. The walls have been completely covered with words in an invented alphabet, written by a mother she can scarcely remember.
Another catalyst in her life is 12-year-old Beni (Camille Dugay Comencini), a streetwise urchin and petty thief who delivers food parcels to the poorest parishioners of Father Carras (Massimo Poggio). Irene’s own maternal instincts attract her to the bright, sassy little girl, whose sudden demise halfway through the film marks a turning point in Irene’s life.
With the help of hunky, blue-eyed Father Carras, she throws herself body and soul into charity work, while soaring music and Catholic religious iconography push scenes over the top. All this is far too abrupt to be remotely realistic.
Perhaps the film is trying to say that fanaticism, even when undertaken for a good cause, is dangerous. If that’s the case, Ozpetek hedges his bets to allow auds to make wet-eyed identification with Irene’s extravagant altruism. The ending has it both ways, neither of them particularly satisfying.
The talented Bobulova (“The Prince of Homburg”) adds a measured touch of neurosis to Irene’s clean-cut professional woman, offering a minimum of justification for her metamorphosis into some kind of Mother Teresa. Playing her aunts, Gastoni and especially the fine Erica Blanc (in the role of an lucid alcoholic) are convincing opposites, while Andrea Di Stefano has a plum cameo as an emotionally unbalanced hobo. Young Dugay Comencini adds attitude to a strongly drawn rather than realistic character, holding her own against a lot of unnatural dialogue.
In a similar vein, lenser Gian Filippo Corticelli’s sensuous lighting brings out the luxury of production designer Andrea Crisanti’s old-Roman interiors. Lest auds miss the emotional peaks, the volume is turned up during the key moments in Andrea Guerra’s otherwise hummable score.