As it was in Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours,” a house is much more than a home in “A Castle in Italy”; it’s a repository of art, memories, lives lived in full and others cut short. The third semi-autobiographical feature for Italian-French multihyphenate Valeria Bruni Tedeschi once again follows the personal trials of beautiful bourgeois characters in and around the performing arts world, touching on themes of mortality and middle-aged panic in a mostly breezy, intelligent style. More than a mere affirmative-action entry in this year’s Cannes competition (where it is the lone pic directed by a woman), this low-key but pleasing arthouse item will earn more audience goodwill than much of the Croisette’s more fashionably outre product.
Inspired by two seismic events in her own life — the 2006 death of her brother, Virginio, from AIDS and her 2009 adoption of an African baby together with then-partner Louis Garrel — “A Castle in Italy” stars Bruni Tedeschi (“Actresses,” “It Is Easier for a Camel”) as Louise, an actress in her early forties who’s taken a self-imposed retirement from the screen, vowing to “make room for life in my life.” Like the director herself, Lousie descends from a wealthy Italian industrial family, but as pic opens they find themselves at a fiscal crossroads that calls to mind the line from “Six Degrees of Separation” that the rich live “hand to mouth, only on a larger scale.” Drowning in maintenance costs and hit with a nasty bill for back taxes, Louise’s aging mother (real Bruni Tedeschi matriarch Marisa Borini) can no longer manage the upkeep on their sprawling Chekovian estate in Piemonte and must decide whether to convert it into a museum, or perhaps liquidate some of its assets (including a large Bruegel that could fetch millions at auction).
Opposed to any and all of the above is Louise’s brother Ludovic (Filippo Timi), stricken with AIDS but still a fiery presence, railing against the dying of the light with a rapier wit. An intensely physical actor, the “Vincere” star kicks the movie up a notch whenever he’s onscreen, especially in the scenes he shares with Bruni Tedeschi, which have the too-close-for-comfort air of the sibling relationships in some of Bellocchio’s own films.
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Back in Paris, Louise finds herself the unexpected object of a much younger man’s puppyish affection, when actor Nathan (Garrel) starts following her around town, claiming to be madly in love. But the childless Louise is all too aware of the precious hours remaining on her biological clock, and the insouciant Nathan (does Garrel function in any other mode?) seems ill-prepared for the demands of raising a family. Then there’s the fact that Louise may once have had a fling with Nathan’s film-director father (Andre Wilms), but at this stage of life, who can remember?
Working from a screenplay devised with her usual collaborators, Agnes De Sacy and Noemie Lvovsky (“Camille Rewinds”), Bruni Tedeschi holds all of pic’s myriad tangents in a delicate balance, no single one ever rising to the fore, no pressure felt to wrap everything — or anything — up in a tidy package at the end. Her direction is similarly efficient and unfussy, and sometimes rather inspired (particularly in her handling of Ludovic’s inevitable death scene). Above all, this is an actors’ showcase in which the helmer keeps her strong ensemble (including herself) front and center throughout. Only another actor-director, Xavier Beauvois, feels somewhat shoehorned into things as a ne’er-do-well family friend, long supported by Louise’s mom, now abruptly forced to fend for himself. Late in the pic, a side trip to London affords an amusing if superfluous cameo to Omar Sharif.
Bright, airy lensing by Jeanne Lapoire highlights a solid tech package, with Rita Pavone’s infectious ’60s hit “Viva la pappa col pomodoro” making for a delightful musical motif.