"The Moon and the Stars" feels stilted and irrelevant. Directed by vet Brit helmer John Irvin with a fraction of his former energy, pic is classic Euro-pudding, with a strange Blighty overlay on a saga about a struggling film crew making a non-operatic version of "Tosca" at Cinecitta Studios.

Although it’s made as a love letter to the movies and antifascist freedom, “The Moon and the Stars” feels stilted and irrelevant. Directed by vet Brit helmer John Irvin with a fraction of his former energy, pic is classic Euro-pudding, with a strange Blighty overlay on a saga about a struggling film crew making a non-operatic version of “Tosca” at Cinecitta Studios. Though English-language script by Peter Barnes, plus a cast led by Alfred Molina, Jonathan Pryce and Catherine McCormack, was intended to help world sales, the pic’s best hopes are with cablers and vid.

The Italian-English-Hungarian co-production comes off as a phony attempt to recapture the interesting, misunderstood period of Italo filmmaking under Mussolini. The only truly fascinating aspect is how the fictional film crew –Italian producer Davide Rieti (Molina), Hungarian director Lazlo Molnar (Andras Balint), German actress Kristina Baumgarten as Tosca (McCormack) and Brit thesp James Clavel as Scarpia (Pryce) — reflects the production’s own multinational nature.

With winds of war stirring in 1939, project is treated by everyone involved as an escape from real-world pressures, which Davide especially experiences since he’s cash-strapped, Jewish and gay — the worst kind of triple-whammy in fascist Italy. Davide keeps a young lover, rising screen heartthrob Renzo (Rupert Friend), and casts him in a prime supporting role opposite Maria Grazia (Surama De Castro), while Kristina takes her assignment seriously, and alcoholic and addictive James is there strictly for the money.

Barnes’ dialogue overdoes the obvious point that Kristina and James rep European poles that are destined to go to war against each other.

Indeed, script’s consistent problem is its proclivity for turning potentially complex human beings into symbols. Thus, Davide’s identity crisis and need to have a fascist patron in Annibale (Ivano Marescotti) make him the standard conformist, while Molnar — who works at his own pace, spouts liberal ideas and begs to shoot one nude scene — is the artist as libertarian.

As filming proceeds, Davide’s money problems grow so grave that he must use his painting collection as collateral, and antifascist set decorator Marchesini (Ignazio Oliva) is beat up in front of the film crew by brownshirt thugs.

Kristina is dogged by a ridiculous young man (Niccolo Senni) who nearly burns down the set and ends up triggering an unintentionally kitschy re-creation of Davide’s painting depicting Marat’s suicide. Image is telling, for while the pic means to celebrate filmmaking as a creative, civilizing act, it’s tone-deaf to its own lack of taste, wit or drama.

A stiff “Masterpiece Theater” variation of the kind of awkward Euro production most memorably depicted in Godard’s “Contempt,” “Moon” almost never captures what moviemaking is really like, and a final sequence of the crew in marathon all-night mode is plainly false.

Pryce and McCormack are unable to make their barely budding romance credible, while Molina stands out as a good man trapped by forces far beyond his control. Largely Italo support struggles with heavily Anglicized dialogue.

In opening sequences, pic displays the Cinecitta property as extensively as Antonioni did in “The Lady Without Camellias” and Visconti did in “Bellissima,” but, unlike those two directors, Irvin shows little interest in using the grand set piece cinematically.

Disappointingly, Irvin allows few fun glimpses of other productions at the busy studio founded by Mussolini two years prior to the action — a home for the period’s popular “pink telephone” pics and hyper-nationalist epics. Production values are blah.

The Moon and the Stars

Italy-U.K.-Hungary

Production

A Myriad Pictures/Buskin Film/Box Film/Creative Partners Intl. presentation. (International sales: Myriad Pictures, Santa Monica.) Produced by Antonio Guadalupi, Roberto Bessi, Andre Djaoui, Patrick Irwin, Aron Sipos. Directed by John Irvin. Screenplay, Peter Barnes; story, Fabio Carpi.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor/B&W), Elemer Ragalyi; editor, Toby Yates; music, Adriano Maria Vitali; production designer, Amedeo Fago; set decorator, Lucio Di Domenico; costume designer, Alberto Verso; sound (Dolby Digital), Giancarlo Dellapina; supervising sound editor, Tim Lewiston; special effects supervisor, Ferenc Deak; line producer, Andrea Borella; casting, Shaila Rubin, Liora Reich. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now), Jan. 11, 2006. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

James Clavel - Jonathan Pryce Davide Rieti - Alfred Molina Kristina Baumgarten - Catherine McCormack
With: Rupert Friend, Andras Balint, Joanna Scanlan, Niccolo Senni, Ivano Marescotti, Surama De Castro, Ignazio Oliva.

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