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One of the worst disasters in Italian history is given visually persuasive but emotionally underwhelming treatment in Renzo Martinelli's "Vajont." Drama chronicles events leading to a 1963 mountain landslide, which pushed the world's highest hydroelectric dam to overflow, washing away the valley townships and killing 2,000 people.

Carlo Semenza - Michel Serrault
Nino Biadene - Daniel Auteuil
Tina Merlin - Laura Morante
Olmo Montaneri - Jorge Perugorria
Ancilla - Anita Caprioli
Mario Pancini - Leo Gullotta
Giorgio Dal Piaz - Philippe Leroy
Edoardo Semenza - Jean-Christophe Bretigniere
Francesco Penta - Nicola Di Pinto

One of the worst disasters in Italian history is given visually persuasive but emotionally underwhelming treatment in Renzo Martinelli’s “Vajont.” Drama chronicles events leading to a 1963 mountain landslide, which pushed the world’s highest hydroelectric dam to overflow, washing away the valley townships and killing 2,000 people. Caught between aspirations toward the Italian social dramas of Francesco Rosi and Elio Petri and producer Irwin Allen’s glossy ’70s disaster movies, the ambitious but uneven production should still land Euro exposure thanks in part to its prestige cast.

“Vajont” premiered Oct. 9 on the 38th anniversary of the tragedy, with pic projected on a specially erected screen below the massive dam in the Northern Italian mountain township of Longarone, which was rebuilt.

Reaction was mixed, with many charging that the movie simplified and sensationalized the true story. Nonetheless, pic has performed healthily on subsequent release, hitting $1.5 million in its first 10 days.

The disaster previously was the subject of an acclaimed theater piece by actor-director Marco Paolini that scored stellar ratings in a televised version. However, principal inspiration for the script was articles and a book by journalist Tina Merlin (played by Laura Morante), who covered the events for left-wing daily L’Unita.

Drama spans the period from 1959, during construction of the 800-feet high dam, through 1963 when 900 million cubic meters of rock came down at a speed of 125 miles per hour, provoking a 750-foot wave. While many dubbed it an unforeseeable natural disaster, documented evidence revealedsuppressed information, abuse of power, and entrepreneurial and political connivance.

Chief engineers behind the construction, Semenza (Michel Serrault) and Biadene (Daniel Auteuil) are portrayed as arrogant and self-serving. After initial evidence of the instability of Mount Toc, Semenza and Biadene commission the former’s geologist son (Jean-Christophe Bretigniere) to investigate.

But when his findings underline the potential for disaster, Semenza and Biadene hush up the report. A Venetian company angling to sell the dam to the Italian state electricity unit for a massive profit privately finances construction.

In vintage disaster pics like “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno,” audience anxiety was pumped by thorough acquaintance prior to the mayhem with the characters. Martinelli employs this formula to an extent, focusing on a project surveyor (Jorge Perugorria) and his sweetheart Ancilla(Anita Caprioli), who he weds during construction and who is carrying his child when the wall of water descends.

But the pair is no Paul Newman/Faye Dunaway and they fail to provide much emotional heft. Likewise, the imperiled townsfolk are barely fleshed-out sketches.

Filmmakers have used digital effects more extensively than any previous Italo production. F/x work was done entirely in Italy — hence the $9 million budget, which is high by local standards but negligible compared with a similar U.S. project. Results are mostly seamless, aside from one or two slightly artificial backgrounds.

Martinelli (“Porzus”), who has extensive experience in commercials, handles the physical side of directing with assurance, supplying a muscular visual feel via d.p. Blasco Giurato’s dynamic widescreen lensing, full of dramatic, Hitchcockian camera angles and shot in handsomely washed-out retro colors. But the director is less proficient in character definition and command of the actors.

There’s something unsatisfying, too, about a film that is based around a climactic disaster but dispenses with it in a few minutes of mass destruction and stunned aftermath.

Most of the leads in the multinational cast are necessarily dubbed, contributing to a general failure to make them interesting as characters.

In a key role, Morante registers poorly — following her measured work in Nanni Moretti’s “The Son’s Room” — with an overwrought turn that confuses brittle and hysterical with fiery and impassioned.

The suspenseful mood is echoed in Francesco Sartori’s robust orchestral score, while Martinelli underlines the Hollywood veneer with a soundtrack that lays on solemn choral pieces, a breathy, Enya-style love theme (sung by Filippa Giordano) and — in perhaps the most aggressive marketing hook — a pop-opera ballad by international star Andrea Bocelli.

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