Actor-director Sergio Rubini delivers one of his more engaging behind-the-camera efforts, plunging into the sun-scorched intoxication and superstitions of his native Puglia to spin a darkly comic fairy tale of love, power, covetousness and transfiguration in “Soul Mate.” While the ending is disconcertingly abrupt, the film navigates its tortuous plot with verve and velocity, distilling a captivating brew of over-the-top grotesquerie, magic and earthy sexuality. Domestic commercial outlook appears bright, while remake potential may attract offshore interest.
Basically a Mediterranean twist on a classic identity-swap scenario, the comedy opens in a small southern coastal town as local fishing magnate’s daughter Teresa (Valentina Cervi) prepares for her wedding. A spoilt rich bitch with an ugly duckling complex, Teresa delights in having snatched humble but hunky groom Tonino (Michele Venitucci) away from his radiant sweetheart Maddalena (Violante Placido). But her gloating proves premature when he balks during the ceremony, opting for true love over family connections.
The couple flees to a nearby beach to escape the wrath of Teresa and her brothers. But Teresa’s envy of Maddalena’s beauty begins to consume her. In her angry desperation to win Tonino back, she turns to village crone Benedetta (Maria De Fano), who has a knack for potions and predictions.
While the God-fearing old woman refuses to use her power for evil intentions, her unscrupulous barber son Angelantonio (Rubini) greedily eyes the financial gain, forcing his mother to share her secrets.
The barber kidnaps Maddalena and casts his mother’s spell, re-baptizing Teresa as her rival and allowing her to slip into the other girl’s skin.
Teresa instructs Angelantonio to get rid of the original Maddalena, but he lacks the necessary ruthlessness. While Teresa, in the guise of Maddalena, gets her lascivious claws back into Tonino, chaos erupts in her family over her apparent disappearance. Matters are further complicated when the real Maddalena convinces the barber and his mother to cast another spell, transforming her into Teresa with the challenge of making Tonino respond to the real woman inside.
The complicated plot doesn’t entirely hang together, but the film’s giddy momentum and its sense of the south as an incandescent place of volatile emotions, altered reality and grass-roots sorcery make “Soul Mate” spirited entertainment.
Rubini incorporates some stylish visual tricks using Benedetta’s potions bowl, and d.p. Paolo Carnera drenches the handsome widescreen visuals in warm Mediterranean light. Pino Donaggio’s lively score ranges from typically robust orchestral themes to boisterous rock to folksy regional sounds.
Revealing barbed comic instincts kept largely hidden until now, Cervi is enormous fun as the hysterical, venal shrew accustomed to getting her own way, revealing a gentle side only after Maddalena inhabits her body.
Contrastingly, Placido strikes a lovely balance between sweet-natured poise and sexy determination, unveiling her inner vixen when Teresa takes control.
Rubini carves out an amusing, unrestrained role for himself as the clumsy conduit for witchcraft.