Two of Italy’s most accomplished actors, Antonio Albanese and Fabrizio Bentivoglio, make a formidable team in director Carlo Mazzacurati’s “Holy Tongue,” a delicate comedy about friendship, failure and the redemption of two very likable small-town losers. Combining elements of the buddy movie and crime caper, the film, intelligently scripted by Franco Bernini, Umberto Contarello, Mazzacurati and Marco Pettenello, strikes a fine balance between its lighter side and a more melancholy vocation, making it both humorous and poignant. Home-ground commercial prospects look excellent, and the comedy’s accessible nature and universal themes give it a better-than-average shot at offshore arthouse dates.
Mazzacurati’s films in the past have dealt with more weighty issues (notably the uneasy connection linking Italy with central and eastern Europe in “Another Life,” “The Bull” and “Vesna Goes Fast”). Working in a lighter key here with his screenwriting collaborators, the director has produced arguably his most satisfying work yet, distinguished by a strong sense of place and a deep feeling for the landscapes of Mazzacurati’s native northeast region.
The odd-couple protagonists are Willy (Bentivoglio), who recently lost his salesman’s job and was ditched by his wife Patrizia (Isabella Ferrari), and Antonio (Albanese), a perennially unemployed onetime professional rugby player. While there’s plenty of money to be made in their hometown of Padua, the fortysomething friends speak no English and have zero computer skills, effectively cutting them out of the business community. Instead they hang out in the town’s most down-market bar and make modest sums through petty thievery.
A Saints Day procession and church service give them the idea of robbing the donation box in the local basilica. Thwarted by guard dogs, they run for cover, but Antonio impulsively steals a jewel-encrusted holy relic containing the tongue of Saint Antonio, patron saint of the humble and needy. Troubled by thoughts of the wrath of God and by the words of priests in TV news appeals, Willy wants to return the relic.
But emboldened by the idea of finally making some serious cash, Antonio becomes more ruthless and reckless, delivering ransom demands to the Vatican. His boldness proves contagious, giving Willy a sense of power over the city that has long rejected them.
When the church refuses to pay, Antonio goes to a Gypsy encampment to off-load a ruby lifted from the relic. But the Gypsy chief (Tony Bertorelli) guesses to the stone’s origin and alerts the media, prompting the duo’s hasty retreat from town and a flight across the region punctuated by surreal encounters.
The musical accents of the Veneto region give an amusing lilt to the dialogue, and the self-promoting TV campaign of one businessman (Giulio Brogi) for the statue’s return will provide the biggest laughs to Italians familiar with secessionist-minded Northerners. But the humor here is a lot less dependent on regional and dialect quirks than many contemporary Italian comedies, so it seems more likely to function beyond national borders.
Backed by a skilled supporting cast, Albanese and Bentivoglio bounce off each other with effortless affinity. Their contrasting personalities and physical types — the former chubby and jovial, with a volatile and sometimes surly streak; the latter dejected and lost-looking, incapable of reacting against the sadness that weighs him down — provide the comedy with a lively dynamic that recalls any number of classic comic screen pairings, skewed with an Italian twist.
The deftly handled comedy is never uproariously funny but consistently clever and enjoyable. Perhaps even more than this, however, the film scores with its beautifully judged, bittersweet undertone, driven by Willy’s sorrowful voiceover commentary.
Swept along by an eclectic soundtrack of melodic tunes by Keith Jarrett and other composers, the film owes much to the handsome widescreen lensing of Alessandro Pesci, whose customary use of deep, robust color has never been sharper, giving a lush, evocative feel to the expansive landscapes and rolling hills around Padua and the somber skies over the Venetian lagoon.