Awkwardly handled thriller elements in the latter reels get in the way of a message of cultural fraternity.

Thirteen years after his breakout role in Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Steam: The Turkish Bath,” thesp Alessandro Gassman plays another handsome Italo husband seduced by the Orient in “The Father and the Foreigner,” and again the region is personified by an affable but mysterious local. But Ricky Tognazzi’s adaptation of the book by “Crime Novel” scribe Giancarlo De Cataldo feels muddled, with awkwardly handled thriller elements in the latter reels getting in the way of a message of cultural fraternity and impressively twinned portraits of men caring for disabled children. Beyond Italy, this is mainly fest fare.

Diego (Gassman), a pen pusher at a busy Rome office, meets a Syrian man, Walid (Amr Waked), at the rehabilitation center where he takes his handicapped 6-year-old son, Giacomino (Leonardo Della Bianca). Walid is dropped off there by his chauffer with his boy, Yussef (Ilary Branco), who is slightly younger and more severely handicapped than Giacomino. Both fathers immediately strike up a friendship despite their different cultural and class backgrounds.

Much like in “Steam,” the friendship between the men grows deeper while the marriage of Gassman’s character deteriorates. Lisa (Ksenia Rappoport) and Diego’s relationship has been under a lot of strain since Giacomino’s birth, and in some overly cliched scenes, Tognazzi shows how the beautiful Russian bride gave up her dream of becoming a photographer to be a full-time and somewhat disheveled mother.

Diego starts taking off more time from work to spend with both Giacomino, Walid and Yussef. But despite the fact they start to see each other very often, Diego never introduces Walid to Lisa, and the Syrian reveals even less about himself to his new friend.

The screenplay, credited to eight scribes including Tognazzi and De Cataldo, never makes it believable that Diego would put so much trust in a man he barely knows, and because of this, the scenes in which they visit various locations and meet Walid’s many acquaintances often feel more plotted than organic.

When, in the second half, the film indeed reveals itself to be a thriller of sorts that needs the previously introduced characters and locations, the rather humane themes of rekindled paternal love and male friendship are pushed to the background in favor of a muddled, awkwardly handled intrigue. Indeed, the earlier scenes in which Tognazzi seemed genuinely interested in the characters’ emotions are sorely missed, especially since Tognazzi is something of an expert in cinematic depictions of deep male friendships (“Ultra,” “La scorta,” “Canone Inverso — Making Love”).

Gassman convinces but has played this kind of role before, and Rappoport, though always an engaging presence, is given an underdeveloped part; nothing is made of the fact that the mother of Diego’s child is also a foreigner. Intense Egyptian thesp Waked (“The Aquarium”) does what he can in an ambivalent role, but is not aided by bad Italian dubbing, while Lebanese actor-director Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”) fails to impress as a shady lady acquaintance of Walid’s.

Tech credits are strong, with expert use of Italian and foreign locations shot in handsome widescreen, and a score infused with Middle-Eastern rhythms.

The Father and the Foreigner

Italy

Production

An 01 Distribution release of an Ager3, Rai Cinema presentation and production. (International sales: Intramovies, Rome.) Produced by Grazia Volpi. Executive producer, Sandro Frezza. Directed by Ricky Tognazzi. Screenplay, Giancarlo De Cataldo, Graziano Diana, Simona Izzo, Tognazi, based on the novel by De Cataldo.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Tani Canevari; editor, Carla Simoncelli; music, Carlo Siliotto; production designer, Mariangela Capuano; costume designer, Lina Nerli Taviani; sound (Dolby Digital), Remo Ugolinelli. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (noncompeting), Oct. 30, 2010. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Alessandro Gassman, Amr Waked, Ksenia Rappoport, Leo Guillotta, Nadine Labaki, Emanuele Salce, Leonardo Della Bianca, Ilary Branco.
(Italian, Arabic, French dialogue)

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