A small scale but absorbing twin character study powered by two compelling performances, “One Man Up” tracks the parallel lives of two men from Naples in the cynical, amoral ’80s as they are elevated to positions of public glory then coldly cast aside by society. While Paolo Sorrentino’s writing is more refined than his direction, this is an intelligent, thematically ambitious first feature by Italian standards, and should play festivals and open doors for the Neapolitan newcomer. Produced by some of the same team that launched Mario Martone’s film career with “Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician,” the drama was the swan song project of American-born producer-distributor Kermit Smith, who died in April.
In terms of the depth with which it explores the identically named main characters, Sorrentino’s original script has something of the density and complexity of a novel. As the 1980s begin, both men seem to have the world at their feet but both are destined for a fall.
One is Tony Pisapia (Toni Servillo) a cocaine-addled cheesy club singer, whose moment in the spotlight with a triumphant concert segues to disgrace when he’s caught in bed with an underage girl and publicly crucified.
The other is Antonio Pisapia (Andrea Renzi), an ace professional soccer player whose crucial goal in a big match makes him a hero, but whose torn ligaments force him off the team, beginning a long, frustrated quest to carve a career as a coach.
Both men are quintessentially Italian public figures — based on singer Franco Califano and footballer Agostino Di Bartolomei — and this undoubtedly will limit offshore audiences’ access to the story. But while it takes too long to establish the slightly schematic juxtaposition of two seemingly distant but ultimately similar lives, and then to intersect the parallels, Sorrentino’s script turns enough unexpected corners to keep the drama intriguing.
Skipping forward to 1984, Toni and Antonio both struggle to get back on their feet, not helped by the ambiguous, self-serving figures around them. Even Antonio’s initially sympathetic wife loses patience and abandons him. But both men continue to fight the obstacles and pursue their dream of dignity and achievement until their paths cross briefly, signaling a moment of truth.
Despite the melancholy nature of this story, the film maintains a tone that is sober and reflective without becoming maudlin, making original observations about the nature of celebrity and success, ambition and failure. While Sorrentino’s direction is often awkward — some dream sequences are especially cumbersome — and his grasp of narrative flow erratic, the drama steadily gains momentum and forcefulness as its themes coalesce. Sole weak technical link in the modest production is an insistent, overbearing music score.
As is frequently the case with Neapolitan cinema, some of the supporting cast tend to be too stridently emphatic, but the two measured central performances are full of depth and subtle nuance. Renzi quietly conveys the sorrow of a timid, unassuming man acutely aware of his failings, while Servillo, in the showier role, pairs brash swagger and self-importance with humor, generosity, expansiveness and an understated pathetic side that keeps Toni human until the final act revelation that he too has a soul.