To state the obvious: the Taviani brothers have made some remarkable films in their long and fruitful career, so saying that their latest, “Rainbow — A Private Affair,” is an artificial and dully old-fashioned literary adaptation in no way denigrates the position they hold in cinema’s firmament. It is, however, sad that this and their 2015 misfire “Wondrous Boccaccio” are both generically pretty, narratively bland works whose filmic shallowness is their most notable attribute. “Rainbow,” directed solely by Paolo Taviani but presented as a work of both brothers, is “freely inspired by” (though it’s closer than that) Beppe Fenoglio’s 1963 novel set during Italy’s mid-1940s civil war, when partisans and fascists engaged in tit-for-tat battles of attrition. The directors’ reputation ensures their latest offering makes the festival rounds, but it’s doubtful the movie will do well on general release even at home.
In the northwestern province of Piedmont, toward the end of World War II, freedom fighters and soldiers still loyal to Mussolini are locked in combat. Milton (Luca Marinelli), given that nickname thanks to his interest in English literature, breaks off from his band of partisans to revisit a large country house where he used to pass idyllic afternoons with his crush Fulvia (Valentina Bellè). Only the caretaker (Anna Ferruzzo) is left, but through flashbacks we return to life at the start of the war, when the mercurial and bewitching Fulvia — conceived very much as a figment of a literary imagination rather than flesh-and-blood — charmed both Milton and his best friend, the handsome, perfectly turned-out Giorgio (Lorenzo Richelmy).
Within the first 15 minutes it’s clear the Tavianis have sadly turned a work of literary depth into more of a middle-brow romance novel with a standard historical setting. The caretaker hints that Fulvia and Giorgio did more than play piano together, causing an intense pang of jealousy that makes Milton determined to find his friend and learn the truth. Could his beautiful idol have besmirched his notion of her virginity by anything so vulgar as a roll in the hay? Milton needs to know, but when he locates the right partisan group, he discovers that Giorgio’s been captured by the fascists. What follows is a desperate attempt to find a fascist prisoner who can be exchanged for his erstwhile friend.
The ambiguity behind Milton’s mission should provide the film’s most interesting element: Does he want to rescue Giorgio because they’re best mates, or because Milton needs to know whether his friend was the first to bed his dream girl? Even were we to overlook such antiquated notions of purity, presented as if they remain of utmost concern, the film’s nostalgia-drenched affectedness works against an active involvement in the plot. The Tavianis don’t fetishize the trappings of the past — in fact, the production, costume and hair design are surprisingly lax when it comes to period verisimilitude — but the entire film is predicated on the search to recapture a golden moment at the beginning of the war, when lives of flirtatious innocence and privilege were being fed by the warm summer sun.
It’s not that the horrors of the civil war are ignored: there’s a dreamlike scene showing the bodies of a peasant family massacred outside their home, from which a lone survivor, a little girl, gets up and goes inside. Paolo Taviani has said that the episode was a true story told to him during the making of “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” yet it’s inserted here in such a hermetic manner that what should act as a powerful antiwar statement turns into merely an oddly inserted appendage.
The English title is poorly chosen: Yes, Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is played on a 78 and then played with in the background music, yet using “Rainbow” in the film’s name leads to a confused understanding of the movie’s nature. What it does do, unfortunately, is underline the nostalgic element, a yearning for a rosy-hued past that colors the whole film in a hoary artificiality. Even the use of fog — obscuring the past, then lifting to allow the present to shine through — is more derivative than magical. The feeling we’re left with is that the Tavianis succeeded in reproducing a narrative, yet were unable to get inside the story to offer anything but the most superficial statement about love or friendship or conflict.