A grotesque grab bag of trattoria diners, repping a cross-section of Italian society, eats its way through Ettore Scola’s “The Dinner,” a relaxing, well-oiled comedy with little to digest. Missing the searing social commentary and emotional poignancy of Scola’s memorable “We All Loved Each Other So Much” and “A Special Day” — not to mention a unified narrative — this meal is strictly Scola-lite. Yet the director’s masterly feel for comedy and uncanny ability to keep the ball in the air and dialog flowing around 14 tables with some 40-odd characters suggests that the film will have a small but faithful stream of customers.
Catapulting the viewer into the thick of restaurant life, Flora (Fanny Ardant), the owner’s wife who possesses Zen-like composure, sweeps into the eatery in a furiously long opening take. The pic never emerges from this circumscribed world, which recalls Scola’s claustrophobic use of the dance hall in “Le Bal” and the apartments in “The Family” and “The Terrace” and suggests the limited horizons of Flora’s customers. It could also be seen as the stage of a play she directs from behind the scenes. In any case, the charmingly wise Flora is the only balanced character to identify with in a sea of everyday monsters.
Each table has its story: There is a timid, toupee-wearing loner (Rolando Ravello) who invites a party magician (Antonio Catania) to dinner for company, under the prying eye of gentleman-philosopher, Maestro Pezzullo (Vittorio Gassman). The all-eros world of blowzy divorcee (Stefania Sandrelli) caves in when her prim collegiate daughter (Lea Gramsdorff) informs her she’s entering a convent. Giancarlo Giannini is allowed an exhilarating star turn as a philandering prof who cynically disillusions his young student/lover (Marie Gillain) to keep her from spilling the beans to his wife. A nervous young woman (Francesca D’Aloja), her cold-blooded father and warm-hearted brother provide a textbook illustration of a dysfunctional Italian family, while, at another table , a Japanese couple with a tyke glued to his GameBoy seem reasonably well-adjusted.
“The Dinner” chronicles an apolitical society lacking all depth, passion and soul. The class struggle is but a nostalgic memory, says Scola through the mouth of an angry Communist chef (Eros Pagni), in a torrent of disgust at what the world has come to. Reinforcing the point, a table of monied, tax-evading shopkeepers splits down the middle between sympathizers of the Left and Right.
There is a tip of the hat in the direction of a still-uncorrupted table of teenagers, but it rings pretty hollow when they begin to sing in happy harmony. Ditto a classical music interlude, in which the entire restaurant of vulgarians is momentarily and oddly enchanted by an ethereal harp.
Also overdone is the point that everyone has a lover they barely bother to hide. A woman’s inviting her four men to dinner together seems simply unreal. On the other hand, the one serious love story, Flora’s, is allowed to vanish with a resigned sigh, after Gassman warns her that emotions can’t be trusted to bring happiness in the long run.
Editor Raimondo Crociani does a masterful job of splicing together all this material so it remains amusing for over two hours. A flowery orchestral score by Armando Trovajoli, at first disconcertingly old-fashioned, ultimately suggests the characters are stuck somewhere outside of time. The same may be said for Odette Nicoletti’s costumes, which tend to be just beyond the realistic.
Co-scripting with Scola and veteran Furio Scarpelli are respective offspring Silvia Scola and Giacomo Scarpelli. An amusing fantasy ending salutes, of all things, “Miracle in Milan.”