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Stefano Incerti’s impressive, if occasionally flawed “Gorbaciof” unites Toni Servillo’s bravura talent and lenser Pasquale Mari’s superb camerawork in service to the helmer’s personal best. Set in an insular Neapolitan world suffused with a heady sense of isolation, the pic owes its name to the titular protag, a prison cashier with a penchant for high-stakes gambling whose large birthmark earns him the nickname of the former Soviet leader. Incerti disappointingly reduces a Chinese love interest to an inscrutable, silent Oriental, but overall his vision is mature and meticulously crafted. Fests should jump, while Euro arthouses could ask to be dealt in.

From the arresting opening, with an ultra-pale Servillo walking with a distinctive swagger down a noisy street in Naples, it’s clear Incerti (“The Man of Glass”) banks everything on his star, and while some won’t completely shake the specter of his perf in “Il Divo,” there’s no denying the thesp’s extraordinary artistry or the fullness of the portrait. Marino Pacileo, called Gorbaciof (i.e., Gorbachev), processes the money paid daily by people visiting inmates in Naples’ Poggioreale prison. With his greasy slicked-back hair, maroon shirt, gray suit and rubbery face set in a haughty sneer, he’s a slightly repulsive but intriguing figure.

Gorbaciof’s major indulgence is gambling: off hours he’s in the back of a Chinese restaurant, playing poker with a powerful, corrupt lawyer (Geppy Gleijeses) and the restaurant owner (Hal Yamanouchi). Gorbaciof develops another addiction at the eatery: the proprietor’s attractive daughter Lila (Mi Yang), though she can’t communicate in Italian. When her father loses a hefty chunk of change, Gorbaciof comes to the rescue, “borrowing” money from the prison cashbox; morally, this isn’t such a big deal for him, though it sets him on a slippery path.

The stripped-down script provides only the barest information — Gorbaciof’s history is suggested rather than detailed — and dialogue, often delivered with a thick Neapolitan accent, is kept to a minimum. Incerti’s bare-bones approach conjures up an alternate world of stillness, though his sense of minimalism is defined by a potent presence. The few times Gorbaciof interacts outside his everyday haunts are always slightly jarring, generally to the pic’s advantage, except, for instance, a free-wheeling (literally) roll through an airport that doesn’t so much break the spell as act at cross-purposes.

Gorbaciof’s attraction to Lily humanizes him, but unfortunately the script keeps her largely speechless. Presumably his affection, and its power to free her from isolation, is the reason this beautiful young woman would fall for such an unattractive eccentric, but the angle needs to be more compelling if it’s to be believed. While his complexity comes across with only hints at his background, hers leaves the viewer wanting more — she’s too close to the Oriental stereotype of “the inscrutable other,” and casting a Japanese actor to play her Chinese father compounds the problem. It’s no fault of actress Mi Yang, appealing in her first big role outside Chinese TV and revealing a screen-holding presence, timid and lonely, yet more than an empty vessel.

Servillo builds his character starting from Gorbaciof’s walk, imbuing the role with an attention-grabbing originality that inhabits a world only playing on the edge of reality, like a bizarre figure in a Neapolitan version of an Edward Hopper painting. For some it may be too much of a caricature, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the totality of the creation, including the effluvial rush of words punctuating periods of silence.

The occasional unexpected shot, such as Gorbaciof suddenly pulling out a muscle-stretching device and jutting out his arm so it nearly bursts from the screen, furthers the sense of someone who moves and acts via spurts of energy, with little thought as to what comes next. Part of helmer Incerti’s success here is the way he makes the camera look and see, not merely passively record. Lensing is unshowy but always confident, and the lighting, harsh at times while remaining real, adds the right level of depth.

Gorbaciof

Italy

  • Production: A Lucky Red release (in Italy) of a Devon Cinematografica, Immagine e Cinema, Surf Film, Teatri Uniti, the Bottom Line production, in collaboration with Rai Cinema. (International sales: Rai Trade, Rome.) Produced by Luciano Martino, Edwige Fenech, Massimo Vigliar, Angelo Curti, Sergio Pelone. Directed by Stefano Incerti. Screenplay, Diego De Silva, Incerti.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Pasquale Mari; editor, Marco Spoletini; music, Teho Teardo; production designer, Lino Fiorito; costume designer, Ortensia De Francesco; sound (Dolby Digital), Daghi Rondanini, Fabio Pagotto, Marco Coppolecchia; assistant director, Lorenzo Molossi; casting, Costanza Boccardi, Alessandra Cutolo. Reviewed on DVD at Lucky Red screening room, Rome, Aug. 27, 2010. (In Venice Film Festival -- noncompeting; Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations). Running time: 81 MIN.
  • With: With: Toni Servillo, Mi Yang, Geppy Gleijeses, Gaetano Bruno, Hal Yamanouchi, Antonio Buonomo, Agostino Chiummariello, Salvatore Ruocco, Francesco Paglino, Salvatore Striano, Nello Mascia.
  • Music By: