Charles Ludlam's long-running, oft-reprised Theater of the Ridiculous smash "The Mystery of Irma Vep" does not invite filmization: It's impact depends on the spectacle of two actors playing all the parts in the show via lighting-quick cross-dressing changes, which is irrelevant on film.

Charles Ludlam’s long-running, oft-reprised Theater of the Ridiculous smash “The Mystery of Irma Vep” does not invite filmization: It’s impact depends on the spectacle of two actors playing all the parts in the show via lighting-quick cross-dressing changes, which is irrelevant on film. Therefore, Brazilian actress-turned-director Carla Camurati opts instead for an absurdist movie about a revival of “Vep” encompassing off-stage shenanigans supposedly nuttier than those on stage. The result, “Irma Vep — She’s Back!,” is a mixed bag, but pic’s strong points — a bravura drag performance, magnificent sets and costumes — could wow on the gay circuit.

A Brazilian production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep” set a Guinness world record for the longest run of a play with the same cast. That two-hander cast (Marco Nanini, Ney Latorraca) also headlines the film version, though they no longer assume all the roles. Latorraca, after a promising intro settles into rather bland double-duty as Darcy, the ex-star recruited to direct the new “Vep,” and Darcy’s interfering mother. The two bicker constantly, but this sharing of the frame by the actor’s two personae never registers as particularly funny. Laterraca’s mother figure comes off like a poor man’s version of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, minus the venom and the religion.

Nanini, on the other hand, steals the show in a “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” parody that finds him as wheelchair-bound ex-star Tony at the mercy of himself — as Tony’s off-the-wall, manically alcoholic sister Cleide. Nanini’s Cleide is a joy to watch, her very masculine klutziness marvelously camping up her feminine fluttering as she arrays herself in new finery. Kudos must go to director Camurati for recognizing a masterful tour-de-force perf and building her movie around it.

Cleide elbows herself into the rehearsals of the new production of “Vep.” She even grotesquely reprises her kid-star hit tune “Sunbathing by Moonlight” in an attempt to win the favor of the show’s young lead (Thiago Fragoso), who is stunned into stuttering silence at the sight of the zaftig middle-aged Cleide in gossamer hoops and pigtails coyly sliding down a column.

Helmer Camurati throws in a few hilarious flashbacks to the almost equally grotesque Cleide in her juve prime mugging to a TV camera.

Crisp, vibrant lensing by vet cinematographer Lauro Escorel, opulent set design by Marcus Flaksman, and Cao Albuquerque’s colorful costumes artfully set a stage for every occasion, even a funeral.

Irma Vep - She's Back!

Brazil

Production

A Downtown Filmes/Globo Filmes presentation of a Pesquena Central Filmes/Copacabana Filmes production. Produced by Bianca Costa, Carla Camurati, Fernando Libonati, Marco Nanini. Executive producers, Bianca Costa, Fernando Libonati. Co-producer, Ney Latorraca. Directed by Carla Camurati. Screenplay, Camurati, Melanie Dimantas, Adriana Falcao.

Crew

Camera (color), Lauro Escorel; editors, Ricardo Mehedff, Pedro Amorim; music, Guto Graca Mello; art director, Marcos Flaksman; costume designer, Cao Albuquerque; sound (Dolby Digital), Valeria Ferro, Waldir Xavier. Reviewed at New York Brazilian Film Festival, Aug. 13, 2006. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Marco Nanini, Ney Latorraca, Thiago Fragoso, Marcos Caruso, Fernando Caruso, Leandro Hassum. (Portuguese dialogue)
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