Gorgeous locations and solid performances can’t make up for a half-baked script and clumsy direction in this disappointing moral-dilemma saga set in Italy near the end of WWII. “The Garden of Redemption” got a single Memorial Day slot on Showtime before preeming in Seattle. Prospects of planting this “Garden” in any but the most token theatrical settings seem dim, so expect to find “Redemption” on cable.
Pic, which takes place in Tuscany in 1944 — but was shot in Portugal — gets off to a tense, stylish start with a young American paratrooper (James Acheson) explaining, via voiceover, his impending mission to help Italian partisans locate entrenched German anti-aircraft artillery. He successfully connects with the locals, led by wily Zito (Dan Hedaya, in a convincing change-of-pace role), who puts the Yank in a priest’s cassock “to be safe.” He could have put him in a floral-print dress, for all the difference it would make: The American stays underground for the rest of the story. In fact, he becomes so peripheral, we never hear another voiceover from him (or anyone else).
That kind of formal confusion is representative of a script, by helmer Thomas Michael Donnelly, that raises interesting ideas only to dash, muddle or forget them soon after.
Tale centers on sensitive priest Don Paolo (Anthony LaPaglia) and his increasingly nettlesome relationship with young Adriana (Embeth Davidtz), a village beauty who always manages to have a fresh change of new-looking clothes. Their dialogue isn’t nearly as crisp.
The redemption theme, which hinges on Don Paolo’s choice between his pious, pacifist impulses and his kinship with the rebellious villagers (and Adriana in particular), is just as dully handled. Once he decides to help the partigiani by carrying those coordinates to nearby Allies, a breakdown in communications is the only reason his commitment is doubted — a less-than-crucial conflict. The whole mission seems fairly bogus anyway, given the total superiority of Allied air power at the time. And a war pic that rests two major plot turns on characters stupidly flashing U.S.-made goods before Nazi eyes isn’t exactly begging to be taken seriously. (We knew that cigarettes were deadly, but now it turns out that Hershey bars can kill!)
If all these structural problems aren’t enough, pic is plagued by an incomprehensible language plan. Given the polyglot cast and U.S. marketing demands, it made sense to sub English for Italian lingo, but there’s no logical follow-through: The locals speak English, except when they lapse into oddly accented Italian, and the Germans speak German, mit subtitles, except when they speak English to the Italians — and English amongst themselves on arbitrarily chosen special occasions.
Of course, these cosmetic boo-boos would be forgivable if Donnelly stuck to his major themes and developed them in some probing way. But pic’s questions of faith are as skin-deep as its language skills, and the storyline is as jury-rigged as an unplanned bridge. With so many cinematic mines being stepped on at every turn, auds may welcome the firing squad seen at the end. That’s too bad, since the thesps all tackle their tasks with sober passion, and the lensing and design are far richer than the $ 4 million budget suggests.