After 19 years away, veteran helmer Giuliano Montaldo makes an airless return to features with “The Demons of St. Petersburg,” an overstaged, fanciful Fyodor Dostoyevsky biopic. Long past his “Sacco & Vanzetti” days, Montaldo is tripped up by a superficially iconic sense of character and a weak script that fails to say anything meaningful about the conjunction between literature and politics. In short, this is no “Coast of Utopia.” Initial opening April 24, on 110 screens, showed respectable returns, but dropoff was steep a week later.
The middle-aged Dostoyevsky (Miki Manojlovic, largely passive) is summoned to a loony bin by inmate Gusiev (Filippo Timi), who confesses he’s part of a revolutionary organization plotting to kill the Romanov royals. At night, the great writer searches for Gusiev’s cohorts to prevent their next attack; during the day, he hurriedly dictates “The Gambler” to secretary Anna (Carolina Crescentini). Shooting largely in Turin, with only occasional location work in St. Petersburg, Montaldo favors tight shots to convincingly pass the Piedmont region off as Russia, though lighting is oddly theatrical. Dubbing feels old-fashioned, while Ennio Morricone’s fluid music sounds lifted from a far grander project.