Little of the promise associated with Alfonso Arau (“Like Water for Chocolate,” “A Walk in the Clouds”) is realized in “The Trick in the Sheet.” Judging from the title, auds might imagine something about a cheap one-night stand, though instead it alludes to early cinema spectators astonished by the magic of moving images projected on a white sheet. A different kind of shock awaits ticketbuyers in the form of poor acting, risible dubbing and ham-fisted direction that not even master lenser Vittorio Storaro can save. A disappointing late June opening doesn’t bode well for future bookings.
Siren Maria Grazia Cucinotta made this her special project, coming onboard as producer and star while sister Giovanna co-scripted. Given the actress’s long association with cleavage-prominent roles, viewers might expect she’d want to get away from the kind of objectification that practically makes her decolletage a character in its own right, but cheap breast jokes, even in pics set in 1905, will forever hold sway on Italian screens. Unfortunately, that’s the least of the sins here.
Cucinotta plays Marianna, a volatile Sicilian peasant who earns pocket change by hoodwinking gullible tourists into thinking the cave of the Sibyl still has the power of prophecy. Eager for more cash to help feed her sister Celestina (Miriana Comiato), she goes to work as a washerwoman for uppity northern Countess Beatrice (Anne Parillaud), who’s fallen madly in love with young local Federico (Primo Reggiani).
Saturnine entrepreneur Gennarino Pecoraro (Ernesto Mahieux) appoints inexperienced Federico chief helmer for his startup cinema biz. Searching for a safe subject that allows for plenty of semi-nudity, Federico chooses the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. Beatrice expects to be the star, but then Federico spies Marianna bathing nude in a lake and shoots the scenes without the ignorant peasant woman knowing her naked butt will be the hit of the town.
“The Trick in the Sheet” is being promoted as a tribute to both Sicily and her film pioneers, but it falls short on both counts. Locals are shown as superstitious yokels or decadent caricatures, and any hope of insight into the still-contentious north-south Italian divide is lost in the prosaic script. Early cinema mavens will cringe at the re-creations of 1905 film, in which closeups were invented long before D.W. Griffith and everyone walks like Charlie Chaplin. With a knowing wink, the Little Tramp’s daughter, Geraldine Chaplin, is cast as Federico’s movie-hating, piano-playing mom, but the joke, such as it is, falls flat.
Very poor dubbing makes the mediocre perfs even worse, and no one comes through unscathed. Storaro is one of the great cinematographers of the late 20th century, yet his work here is undistinguished, and artificial lighting shifts from golden to matte within the same scene. Abrupt edits make it seem as though Arau was rushed through post-production work.