Italian action director Renzo Martinelli foments a bit more paranoia and panic in "The Stone Merchant," starring Harvey Keitel as an Italian convert to Islam for whom terrorism is a religious duty. This highly improbable tale has underperformed with Italo audiences in its first two weeks, and will likely find most of its following on DVD.
Swimming against the tide of popular thrillers like “Syriana” and Michel Haneke’s “Cache” that seek the roots of Islamic violence in the West’s own backyard, Italian action director Renzo Martinelli foments a bit more paranoia and panic in “The Stone Merchant,” starring Harvey Keitel as an Italian convert to Islam for whom terrorism is a religious duty. This highly improbable tale, which also features F. Murray Abraham, Jordi Molla and Jane March, has underperformed with Italo audiences in its first two weeks, and will likely find most of its following on DVD.Despite Keitel’s top billing, the screenplay by Martinelli and Fabio Campus centers around newsman-turned-professor Alceo (Spanish thesp Jordi Molla of “Bad Boys II” and “Blow”), who has lost both legs in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. Considerably uglified and with the camera frequently focusing on his body double’s stumps in embarrassing close-up, Molla gamely plays a victim of terrorism who now dedicates his life to teaching his students about the Islamic threat to Western civilization. In one of the film’s key lines, he responds to the reasonable objection that “not all Muslims are terrorists” with the curt reply, “But almost all terrorists are Muslims.” Film opens on a fast-paced scene at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, where Alceo’s wife Leda (March), an Alitalia manager, is nearly killed in a shoot-out between undercover police agents and two terrorists. Covered with blood and hysterical, Leda is promised a relaxing vacation in Turkey to forget about it all. But when she and Alceo reach magical Capadoccia, whom do they meet but two terrorist masterminds in the guise of Italian gem merchant Ludovico Vicedomini (Keitel) and Shahid (Abraham), an Italian-speaking Muslim whose day job is to rouse mosque-goers to frenzied hatred of Christians. Seduced by Ludovico’s pressing attentions, and reacting to a tense domestic situation with the terrorist-obsessed Alceo, Leda succumbs to the stone merchant’s charms. Once bedded, though, she seems to disgust her erstwhile lover, who is reluctant to give her his cell number. Later, when his true colors emerge, it becomes clear he has inconveniently fallen in love with a woman who is destined to become an innocent “dove” and carry a radioactive bomb to England for him. Martinelli’s roots in the action genre give the highly contrived story some exciting moments. Bizarrely unsettling is a chase in the dark through Alceo’s apartment, where he clambers hand over hand on a network of overhead tubing while being chased at knifepoint by two Muslim killers. Keitel radiates an ambiguous magnetism as the only non-Christian character who has a redeeming quality or two, though his match with the lovely March stretches credibility. Abraham, on the other hand, unflinchingly fills a totally negative role without any attempt to give a human dimension to the evil Shahid. Most objectionable is Martinelli’s portrayal of all the other Muslims in the film as scowling cutthroats with very dark or even black skin and beards — the worst stereotyping, however chicly dressed by costume designer Silvia Nebiolo. Blasco Giurato’s cinematography is spacious and eye-catching, making punchy use of cranes and aerial work. Fans of Arab music (but why would any be watching this picture?) can enjoy Aldo De Scalzi Pivio’s oriental-sounding soundtrack.