Goethe suggested that “our planet is the mental institution of the universe,” but even though the protag of “La pecora nera” often dreams of Mars, his movements are mostly confined to the madhouse and the local supermarket. Fiction feature debut of Italo actor-comedian Ascanio Celestini is based on his theater performance and book of the same name, and will appeal to his local fan base. But for an audience unfamiliar with his work, the pic’s sensibility is too idiosyncratic and the voiceover far too theatrical to make much of an impression. Film weeks and minor fests are the likeliest takers.
Celestini is part of Italy’s second generation of narrator-actors of what is called “narrative theater.” It is a relatively new form of storytelling that involves mostly oral research into a particular area. Material is then reworked into a monologue that is narrated to the audience by a single person (the narrator-actor or “narractor”), simply sitting onstage.
Though originated by Nobel Prize-winner Dario Fo, who adapted medieval fables for his “Comic Mystery,” it now most often tackles thorny sociopolitical subjects with a contempo relevance. The many unsavory goings-on in Italy’s many asylums, also explored in “The Best of Youth” and “Vincere” among other recent local pics, is the subject of “La pecora nera.”
The mother of protag Nicola (Celestini) dies in the loony bin when Nicola’s still a boy (played by Luigi Fedele in extensive flashbacks). His next-of-kin, who want to hide their own dirty secrets that Nicola’s witnessed, accuse the boy of taking after his mother, and he ends up going in and out of the madhouse, not quite a guest and not exactly a patient either, until, by hanging out with only loonies, he turns into such a crazy person that he becomes a full-time resident.
As an adult, Nicola imagines he has a best friend (Giorgio Tirabassi) that he takes to the supermarket under the supervision of the stern, flatulent nun (Barbara Valmorin) that looks after him at the institution. He’s been in love since childhood with Marinella (Maya Sansa), who sells coffee packets in the grocery store Nicola’s allowed to visit.
Probably as a result of the original source material, the film, written by the helmer and vets Ugo Chiti (“Gomorrah”) and Wilma Labate (“Another World Is Possible”), has a v.o. that recounts much of what is seen onscreen, often to the point of even repeating what the characters are saying, or adding “he said” or “she said” at the end of sentences spoken by actors.
The narration is also filled with onomatopoeias, short sung phrases and various motifs that pop up again and again ad nauseam. All these storytelling tricks no doubt work fine in a theater setting but are grating in the context of what otherwise plays as a straightforward — though never particularly well-developed — narrative film.
Celestini, whose scraggly beard makes him look like a cross between Saint Jerome and a billy goat, does have a screen presence that’s well-suited to the material, though the thesp-helmer and his cast are stuck in rather one-dimensional roles. Lack of clear commentary on the situation in Italo asylums beyond Nicola’s own plight further dilutes interest.
Camerawork by d.p. Daniele Cipri (“Vincere”) is slick, with a nice contrast between the unnaturally bright lights of the supermarket and the dark interiors of the asylum. Costume designer Grazia Colombini’s work adds some much-needed splashes of color in the flashbacks to Nicola’s youth. The absence of a musical score injects a more serious note that nicely counterbalances the lowbrow, farts-and-all humor. Rest of tech package is sound.
Title, which means “The Black Sheep,” was not translated onscreen.