One of Italy’s most eccentric exponents of mainstream comedy, Alessandro Benvenuti fittingly focuses on the arcane wisdom and innate fortitude of madness in his seventh feature, “Ivothe Genius.” This bittersweet comedy’s gentle charms go a long way toward camouflaging a slight uncertainty of tone, which may prevent it from scaling quite the same commercial heights as Benvenuti’s 1994 breakthrough, “Belle al Bar.”
A Tuscan take on “Forrest Gump,” minus any explicit moral messages, the film stars Benvenuti as an orphaned oddball with a passion for facts and figures and for elaborate rebuses. Presumably fresh out of an institution, Ivo returns to the isolated village of his childhood to find the place abandoned. He settles in anyway, occupying his time by paint-ing the entire village with intricate B&W puzzles.
After a long winter alone, Ivo stumbles on a suicidal young couple locked in a car full of exhaust fumes. He attempts to flag down a passing car for help but the driver, Sara (Francesca Neri), takes him for a crazed wild man, and Ivo is beaten up by two motorists and arrested.
Having realized her mistake, the good-hearted Sara invites him to the seaside home of her moneyed, culturally aloof family for a near-disastrous weekend. In order to keep seeing her, the somewhat enamored Ivo accepts her proposal to move him into a partially supervised communal apartment, where she occasionally does volunteer work.
Ivo’s fellow tenants are an engaging bunch, especially bug-eyed, verbose, appearance-fixated former salesman Silvano (delightfully played by gifted TV comic and legit thesp Vito).
But with the quota of affable lunatics suddenly upped from one to five, the story’s center begins to blur, robbing the film of some of its spark. The script keeps things from straying too far off the track, however, by creating a conflict that momentarily casts suspicion on Ivo, steering him back to his village domain.
Laughs are low-key but consistent, with the supporting gallery of both sane and insane characters enriched by amusing quirks. The script casually makes some sweet observations on human nature, and on appreciating the unique gifts every individual has to offer.
While not underplaying the character’s plainly unbalanced mental state, Benvenuti combines resourcefulness, surprising perceptiveness and Chaplinesque innocence to create a disarming personality. Neri is appealing and sympathetic, but her character’s dramatic bias in such breezy comedy relegates her to second fiddle, and Ivo’s romantic feelings for her are underdefined.
The film’s look is sharp and colorful, benefiting enormously from the splendid Tuscan locations and Eugenio Liverano’s inventive production design. Especially effective is the transformation of Ivo’s village home, via his handiwork, into a fairy-tale hamlet.