Ametaphor for a corrupt, self-serving society, and a less-than-flattering advertisement for Italy’s public hospitals, “Physical Jerks” is a screen transfer of director Stefano Reali’s hit play “Operations,” which was staged in Britain by Alan Ayckbourn. The small-scale, often well-observed film doesn’t reconcile its dual ambitions as bittersweet comedy and biting drama, despite able players and a clever script. Eurotube sales look like its main future.
Fast-rising young actor Valerio Mastandrea plays Massimo, an unemployed medical graduate enlisted by health authorities to help uncover a scam. Posing as a soccer player with a knee injury, he is admitted to a state hospital in Rome where he shares a room with wheelchair-bound Luigi (Antonio Catania), hospitalized for four years following a series of botched operations. Luigi’s horror stories are designed to frighten Massimo out of going through with the operation.
Early on, it becomes clear that Luigi, who may or may not be faking, is in league with a pair of ward staffers to free hospital beds, for a charge, to patients stuck on the waiting list. But the script brings in a contorted series of plot twists, creating conflict through increasingly bewildered Massimo’s inkling of Luigi’s true suffering, his slow grasp of the unorthodox ethics behind the scheme, and the growing feelings of loyalty and friendship between the two men.
While some of the second act’s surprise revelations are laboriously introduced, and the script’s laughs peter out after a promising start, the film is an intelligent attempt to marry Italian comedy with social comment and mystery elements. Despite its uncertainty of tone and occasional flatness, its barbed observations on the Byzantine bureaucracy of national government institutions and the opportunities for profiteering are mostly well targeted.
With the authentic hospital interiors shot in a harsh, almost documentary style by Marco Pontecorvo, the production’s main asset is its cast, especially Catania, who shrewdly balances the tough and vulnerable sides of his difficult character.