Sugar coating political commentary with a lighthearted humor reminiscent of period operettas (minus the music), “N (Napoleon and Me)” is a genial look at a young idealist’s disillusionment with the Little Corporal during the Emperor’s exile on Elba. If the pic seems relieved to fall back on tried-and-true laugh-getters like linguistic foibles and downstairs buffoonery, helmer Paolo Virzi manages to squeeze in just enough political philosophy to draw some half-serious conclusions about the pitfalls of hero worship. Pleasant but ultimately slight costumer is generating good local press, though non-Italo auds will lose much of the heavily accented wordplay.
Virzi (“Caterina Goes to Town”) was especially fortunate in his locations, utilizing sections of the island of Elba and villas requiring little doctoring to illustrate life nearly 200 years ago. Captivating opening has 19 -year-old teacher Martino (Elio Germano) briskly walking through town, the camera keeping pace with his strides and expertly showcasing both d.p. Alessandro Pesci’s confident lensing and the beautifully conceived work by the art and costume departments.
A defender of the ideals of the French Revolution, Martino condemns the newly arrived Emperor-in-exile, whose perceived betrayal of the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity seem to make a mockery of democratic hopes. Nightly, Martino dreams of regicide.
Fired from his teaching job after the headmaster finds him inciting anti-Bonapartist slogans in class, he seeks comfort in the arms of his older mistress, the Baroness Emilia (Monica Bellucci), who’s not immune to the hubbub created by Napoleon’s arrival.
Thanks to his intellect, Martino is offered the job of Napoleon’s personal secretary, which provides an ideal way to realize his assassination fantasies. But Bonaparte proves both better protected and more adept at intellectual disarmament than the young revolutionary bargained for.
Just like the operettas “N” often resembles, the basic plot is decorated with numerous, humorous side stories, from Martino’s strident sister Diamantina (Sabrina Impacciatore) to the family’s love-struck maid Mirella (Francesca Inaudi), all contributing to a fairly consistent level of levity thanks in part to the Tuscan accents, laid on with a thick, though accurate, brush. Even the ending carries the whiff of a Viennese concoction sporting serious arguments but bowing and withdrawing in the face of something more crowd pleasing.
Most unexpectedly come moments of genuine emotional resonance, in particular two brief scenes with vet actress Margarita Lozano as Napoleon’s former nursemaid.
Bellucci looks lovely with her Empire hair and clothing — the period seems particularly suited to her beauty, though hers is once again a mostly decorative, unchallenging role. Auteuil comes off best here, giving a hint of what could be a nuanced, deeply understood portrayal of Napoleon’s palpable charisma, so rarely successfully caught onscreen.
Though undeniably attractive, with fluid camera movements, overall lensing lacks texture, keeping everything pretty and well-lit but only occasionally exhibiting something beyond surface pleasures. Use of appropriate Beethoven excerpts fares better than some of the generic incidental music, and certainly reinforces Martino’s revolutionary nature.
The producers have prepared both subtitled and dubbed prints for the pic’s French release, though expert translators will be needed to capture the playful nature of the dialogue’s regional focus and delight in malapropisms.