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Freshwater Man

With a nod to the tradition of the silent film comedians and, more explicitly, to Jacques Tati, popular Italian theater and television comic Antonio Albanese has constructed a fragile but nonetheless exhilarating vehicle for his considerable talents in his debut as writer-actor-director, "Freshwater Man." Despite its featherweight story, this surreal comedy has charmed domestic audiences, grossing an impressive $3 million in two weeks. Other Euro markets may also respond. Antonio (Albanese) and Beatrice (Valeria Milillo) are expecting their first child. To satisfy his wife's sudden craving for mushrooms, Antonio heads for the supermarket, where a heavy package is knocked on his head, causing him to black out and lose his memory. Coming to, he leaves the supermarket, passes his house and keeps walking, vanishing for five years. When he returns, brandishing the jar of mushrooms as if time has stood still, he has no recollection of his long bout of amnesia.

With:
Antonio ..... Antonio Albanese Beatrice ..... Valeria Milillo Goffredo ..... Antonio Petrocelli Tonina ..... Sara Anticoli Patrizia ..... Emanuela Grimalda Patrizio ..... Stefano Sarcinelli Doorman ..... Valerio Isidoro

Finding supercilious avant-garde music star Goffredo (Antonio Petrocelli) in his place as companion to Beatrice and father to their daughter, Tonina (Sara Anticoli), Antonio attempts to remove the usurper and reclaim his family. Beatrice has no intention of taking him back after his unexplained disappearance, but Antonio’s persistence proves formidable.

Working on automatic pilot, the signature of co-writer Vincenzo Cerami, a regular Roberto Benigni collaborator, is evident in the script’s reliance on easy emotional hooks, including the instant bond between Tonina and her childlike father, and in neglecting to contextualize the eccentric characters in a believable environment.

But rudimentary as it is, the scenario provides ample space for Albanese to exercise his extraordinary physical comedy skills as Antonio slowly insinuates himself back into the lives of Beatrice and Tonina. The actor is a flesh-and-blood cartoon in perpetual motion, at times moving with robotic purposefulness, at others like a dancing, rubber-limbed clown, constantly playing with and puzzling over key words and phrases.

The pic is by no means a purely personal showcase; secondary characters are given more attention than is often the case in star-driven Italian comedies. Beatrice’s love of the borderline-certifiable oddball might seem absurd, but Milillo gives her a sweet, slightly daffy quality that somehow makes them a credible couple. Petrocelli more than holds his own against Albanese, creating an amusingly inflated, bourgeois prig in Goffredo.

As with fellow comics like Benigni and Carlo Verdone, Albanese’s direction is centered mainly on performance, but there is a germ here of a more ambitious filmmaking approach. Standout tech contribution is Nicola Piovani’s obsessively jaunty score, which delightfully mimics Albanese’s bizarre rhythms. Lenser Massimo Pau also captures the right spirit with his quirky low-angle shots and unconventional feel for the Milan locations.

Freshwater Man

Italian

Production: A Cecchi Gori Distribuzione release (in Italy) of a Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori presentation of a CGG Tiger Cinematografica production. Produced by Vittorio and Rita Cecchi Gori. Directed by Antonio Albanese. Screenplay, Vincenzo Cerami, Albanese.

Crew: Camera (color), Massimo Pau; editor, Cecilia Zanuso; music, Nicola Piovani; art direction, Sonia Peng; costume design, Claudia Tenaglia; sound (Dolby Digital), Bruno Pupparo; assistant director, Giulio Manfredonia. Reviewed at Adriano Cinema, Rome, Feb. 24, 1997. Running time: 95 MIN.

With: Antonio ..... Antonio Albanese Beatrice ..... Valeria Milillo Goffredo ..... Antonio Petrocelli Tonina ..... Sara Anticoli Patrizia ..... Emanuela Grimalda Patrizio ..... Stefano Sarcinelli Doorman ..... Valerio Isidoro

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