All the world's a stage for the characters in Jacques Rivette's film.

All the world’s a stage for the characters in “Around a Small Mountain,” which, at 85 minutes, is Gallic helmer Jacques Rivette’s shortest work in 28 years. Italo thesp Sergio Castellitto essentially reinvents his character from the helmer’s “Who Knows,” while Rivette regular Jane Birkin co-stars as a woman tortured by past events who needs to be released. Talky, stagy pic, which follows a tiny traveling circus in the French Cevennes region, will interest Rivette admirers at fests and in the niche arena but will do nothing to broaden his appeal.

The theater has been a recurrent theme and setting in Rivette’s oeuvre (“Out 1,” “Love on the Ground”)  probably because his working method, which heavily relies on improvisation, naturally suggests that the porous dividing line between actor and character is rich in tensions and passions. Though the setting in “Around a Small Mountain” is not the theater but a small family circus, the basic rules of performance, improvisation and showmanship still apply.

Kate (Birkin) has returned to her late father’s circus after a 15-year absence and now mans the box office. A stranger, Vittorio (Castellitto), helps Kate with her broken-down car and is subsequently invited to attend a performance. During the tired, threadbare act of the circus’ clowns, led by Alexandre (Andre Marcon, another Rivette regular), the stranger is the only one who laughs, which immediately ingratiates him with the small troupe.

Himself a wanderer and attracted by the aloof Kate, he follows the circus around as they move from village to village, as he slowly uncovers what happened 15 years ago.

Rivette, who is credited alongside four others (including Castellitto) for the screenplay, is not really interested in the actual events that made Kate leave, but rather in their symbolical weight for the emotionally scarred woman, who carries the past like a millstone around her neck.

As is often the case in the Rivette-ian universe, the dialogue tends toward the theatrical but provides direct access to the characters’ emotions. This is especially the case in several monologues flawlessly acted by Birkin, who turns them into soliloquies of pain and despair. Castellitto’s character is not as well defined, and his perf lacks similar moments of grace. Though Rivette thankfully avoids making Kate and Vittorio lovers, a stronger characterization of the latter might have made the entire film more fully of a piece and also shored up the narrative rhythm, which occasionally sags.

Pic at times drops all pretense of naturalism and breaks the fourth wall, which might annoy more traditionally minded lovers of narrative film, but which suits this pic’s themes just fine.

And, as in his previous work, the New Wave vet favors a rather cerebral exploration of human emotions to more technical filmmaking bravura, opting to again shoot in a standard 1:1.85 aspect ratio, which avoids glamorizing or unnecessarily aestheticizing the circus setting. Other tech credits are unassuming.

Around a Small Mountain

France-Italy

Production

A Les Films du Losange release (in France) of a Pierre Grise Prods. presentation of a Pierre Grise Prods., France 2 Cinema (France)/Cinemaundici, Rai Cinema, Alien Produzioni (Italy) production. (International sales: Les Films du Losange, Paris.) Produced by Maurice Tinchant, Martine Marignac, Luigi Musini, Robert Cicutto, Ermanno Olmi, Sergio Castellitto, Margaret Mazzantini. Directed by Jacques Rivette. Screenplay, Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Shirel Amitay, Sergio Castellitto.

Crew

Camera (color), Irina Lubtchansky; editor, Nicole Lubtchansky; music, Pierre Allio; production designer, Manu de Chauvigny, Giuseppe Pirotta; costume designer, Laurence Strutz; sound (Dolby SRD), Olivier Schwob. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 7, 2009. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellitto, Andre Marcon, Jacques Bonaffle, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Helene de Vallombreuse, Tintin Orsono, Vimala Pons. (French dialogue)

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