An adolescent boy develops a decidedly unfilial attachment to his new stepmother in playwright-turned-director Ugo Chiti’s bittersweet drama “The Second Wife,” which plays like a comparatively chaste version of the rustic sexfests made by Tinto Brass in the 1980s. Set in the late ’50s in the sun-drenched Tuscan countryside, this technically polished effort should fit snugly into European TV berths and perhaps the odd theatrical slate. But its cliched story lacks the juice to make much of a bigscreen mark.
Tireless in its worship of Maria Grazia Cucinotta’s cleavage, the film uses every possible excuse to draw attention to the “Il Postino” star’s generous decolletage, which invariably is veiled in a glistening layer of sweat and packed into a succession of low-cut ’50s dresses. Seemingly constructed as a showcase for the actress’s dark, Mediterranean beauty, the slick production no doubt will reinforce the national media’s perception of her as the Sophia Loren of the ’90s.
Unfolding in the steamy summer of 1957, the story opens with the wedding of Sicilian single mother Anna (Cucinotta) to bullish truck-driver Fosco (Lazar Ristovski), and her move with her infant daughter (Jessica Auriemma) to his quiet rural community on the Tuscan coast. Rounding out the family is teenage Livio (Giorgio Noe), Fosco’s son from his first marriage, whose sensitive nature causes friction with his often brutal authoritarian father.
While Anna finds her place among the local women, Fosco carouses with his band of friends, who make nightly expeditions to rob Etruscan graves and sell the relics to art dealers. When Fosco is arrested for theft and imprisoned, the seeds of Livio’s attraction to Anna are free to take root. Clearly drawn to the boy’s tenderness, she nonetheless rejects him. But when his uncle (Stefano Abbati) suffers a nervous breakdown and he becomes fearful about the history of mental instability in the men of his family, Livio throws himself at Anna with an intensity bordering on madness, giving vent to irresponsible passion.
Chiti and co-scripter Nicola Zavagli set up the scenario for violent conflict upon Fosco’s release from prison, but taking a less obvious route, the man’s pragmatic approach to his son and wife’s betrayal allows for life to go on.
Elsewhere, however, the story is more predictable and far too long-winded in unfolding. The narrative remains fragile despite attempts to beef it up with lots of colorful supporting characters and with its portrait of carefree youth through the antics of Livio and his pals. This seems deliberately reminiscent of Fellini’s “Amarcord,” right down to the presence of a simple-minded waif with a crush on Livio, who eventually reveals his secret.
Cast is well directed, with Cucinotta more appealing and dramatically capable than she has been in recent roles, and both Noe and Ristovski (best known for Emir Kusturica’s “Underground”) fine as the triangle’s other elements. Shot in rich, golden tones by Raffaele Mertes, the slick production has the glossiness of a commercial, full of eye-catching color and picturesque settings. The obsessive, carnivalesque music by Pivio and Aldo De Scalzi helps cover the flagging pace.