Cristina Comencini’s 1998 feature, “Marriages,” provided a witty look at the shaky institution of matrimony within an extended family. Her followup, “Free the Fish,” weighs the impact of an impending marriage on two families, one a law-abiding unit of modest means and the other flashy and rich, headed by a crime-world kingpin. While it doesn’t match the subtlety and sophistication of “Marriages” — which seemed more akin to French fare — the new film acknowledges a debt to the biting humor of Pietro Germi’s classic satirical comedies and, consequently, should amuse Italian audiences. Offshore chances seem less certain for this entertaining but uneven comedy.
The mob boss is Michele Verrio (Michele Placido), a romantic ruffian with an expensively vulgar wife (Angelica Ippolito) and a long-suffering but ardent lover, Lunetta (Lunetta Savino). Years earlier, Verrio’s thugs firebombed the car of Lunetta’s journalist brother, Sergio (Francesco Paolantoni), after he penned an unflattering investigative report.
The incident prompted Sergio to move north, leaving behind his daughter, Sabina (Eleonora Sergio), and wife, Mara (Laura Morante), who has remarried Emilio (Emilio Solfrizzi), the owner of an auto showroom. Sabina returns from a stint at a U.S. college, pregnant and engaged to Verrio’s son Giovanni (Marco Morandi).
When it becomes clear the two families are to be linked by marriage, chaos ensues. Events unfold as Lunetta prepares to mount a restaging of a Moscow Opera production of “Aida,” whose Egyptian sets Verrio is using to smuggle drugs into the country. When the shipment goes astray and Verrio takes to his bed following a stroke, two ruthless Sicilian twins involved in the deal threaten to further upset the families’ fragile equilibrium.
One of Comencini’s main strengths has always been as a screenwriter — she has a parallel career as a novelist — and the construction of this wry examination of the thin line separating honesty from dishonesty, legality from illegality and good from evil is intricately clever. But in the script by the helmer, Enzo Monteleone and Gennaro Nunziate, the comic gears take too long to click into place. When the plot’s wheels do start turning, it fails to maintain a consistent level of verve and energy, despite having no shortage of amusing moments about the headaches of family and acquired family.
The director’s other forte is her handling of actors, and, in this respect also, the film delivers up to a point. Placido — looking crassly slick with a dyed brown coif and an inch of gray regrowth — performs a fine balancing act between hardened criminal and devoted family man, making Verrio a sympathetic monster. But both Placido and Savino seem to be part of a broader, more grotesque comedy, their acting styles clashing with the more contained work of the remaining cast. Standout is Solfrizzi, who previously impressed in “Marriages” and last year’s “Outlaw,” and is emerging as one of Italy’s most gifted comic actors.
Production values are sharp across the board, with the Baroque southern city of Lecce providing an attractive setting. What’s missing from the pic is a more contemporary twist, to make it seem something other than a nostalgic return to a style that now appears dated.