On one level a witty manual for aspiring young actors grappling with the basic problems of their craft, on another level one of the most experimental fictional films to come out of Italy in many a moon, Giuseppe Bertolucci’s “Probably Love” is a maverick work that will appeal to film specialists but is likely to send general auds running. While his last film, “The Sweet Noise of Life,” examined an actress’s private torments in a fairly straightforward narrative, here the emotional stumbling of a brash acting student, Sofia, is daringly shredded and re-woven through machine-gun montage, close-ups, oblique angles, directorial intrusions, and similar devices. Both aggressive and playful, pic lacks a much-needed final punch to wrap things up emotionally. Still, this is a surprisingly innovative item for Italian cinema, which is generally averse to tech novelty, and one that should open eyes to the freedom of classy digital cinematography.
Camera work and editing aren’t the film’s only provocative elements. Sofia (played by striking young stage thesp Sonia Bergamasco) must be one of the most irritating heroines ever put on the screen. In the opening episode, “The Lie,” her acting teacher (an electric cameo by veteran Mariangela Melato) calls her a little girl unable to distinguish between herself and the characters she plays. Theater, she theorizes, is fiction, a lie, and if you can’t lie you can’t be an actor.
Viewers struggle to make sense of the trio formed by Sonia, b.f. Cesare (Fabrizio Gifuni) and her best friend Chiara (the mannish, shaved-head Rosalinda Celentano), who looks terminally ill and gay but is neither. When Sonia discovers Chiara and Cesare are more than just buddies, her runaway ego receives a much-needed slap. The shock propels her into pic’s high-strung second part, “The Truth.”
Dazed and confused, Sonia stumbles onto a train. She gets to Italian Switzerland without a ticket, thanks to the kindness of middle-aged conductor Pietro (Teco Celio). Outrageously, Sofia exploits his decency to her own ends, first seducing him and then, in pic’s most dramatically sustained scene, destroying his married life with diabolical relish. Here as earlier, pic’s constant shifting between fiction and the “reality” of intercut rehearsal scenes with the director forces the viewer to recall that these are top-notch actors performing in front of a camera and mike. Caught in this interesting tension, auds end up torn between hating Sofia and admiring Bergamasco, the actress behind the actress.
Bertolucci affectionately lassoes Italo stars Stefania Sandrelli and Alida Valli into pic to offer Sofia more amusing tips on acting. While Melato urged her to lie, Sandrelli guilelessly asserts that a film actress can’t lie — she always plays herself in front of the camera. In pic’s closing and least satisfying part, “Illusion,” Valli (too ill to appear in the film, but nostalgically repped in snippets from several of her classics) is made to say, through the director’s mouth, “a good actress must learn to allude herself.” This appears to be the ticket, as with new-found wisdom and feminine poise, Sofia dazzles a French director at an after-hours screen test at Cinecitta.
After all the richness and promise of the first parts, and particularly the intriguing intensity of Bergamasco’s Sofia, it comes as something of a let-down to see pic end as an elegant charade without emotional closure. One is left feeling that the film industry is a superficial world indeed, whose denizens are all sound, fury, and empty illusion — surely not what was intended.
In contrast, pic’s spirit of exploration and love of cinema is keenly felt in the tenuous colors and free-spirited rhythms of Fabio Cianchetti’s Sony PD100 digital cameras, Federica Lang’s joyously uninhibited editing, and a free-wheeling music track ranging from Gershwin to Schoenberg.