It’s curious how veteran filmmakers like the Taviani brothers could have taken “The Decameron,” one of the greatest books about storytelling, and turned out a narrative as blandly conveyed as “Wondrous Boccaccio.” The classic 14th-century compendium, so full of subversive humor and joyful licentiousness as its plague-escaping narrators entertain each other with bawdy tales, is robbed of its piquancy here, and even its vibrancy is reduced to something artificial. More was expected from this pairing, and despite a strong cast, the pic has struggled to find a home audience following its late February release. The Tavianis’ international standing means offshore bookings will materialize (including forthcoming festival berths at Tribeca and Beijing), but even die-hard fans will be disappointed.
Those same fans may question why Paolo and Vittorio Taviani chose to follow in Pasolini’s footsteps — and, one might add, those of Hugo Fregonese (“Decameron Nights”) as well as Monicelli, Fellini, Visconti and De Sica (“Boccaccio ’70”). While the latter two films aren’t on the same level as Pasolini’s erotically charged Renaissance romp, at least they convey an appropriate sense of playful naughtiness, which is absent in the Tavianis’ rendition. What went wrong? The script and the lensing are all too clean, the overlong prologue too forced, and the comedy often too broad — something Boccaccio, even when crude, managed to skirt through his mastery of the narrator’s art.
The plague is decimating Florence in 1348, striking terror among the healthy few. A group of young, aristocratic women decide to leave the city and, with male peers in tow, move into a country villa where they hope to escape the horrors of the Black Death. To distract themselves from hours spent uncomfortably trying to forget their precarious mortality, they tell each other stories about love: fulfilled, thwarted, illicit and rewarded.
The first tale concerns Niccoluccio Caccianimico (Flavio Parenti), a mama’s boy whose pregnant wife, Catalina (Vittoria Puccini), has become the object of desire for Gentile Carisendi (Riccardo Scamarcio). Tale two, one of the better-known stories, is about a simpleton named Calandrino (Kim Rossi Stuart, mugging), the butt of everyone’s teasing. Bruno (Simone Ciampi) and Buffalmacco (Lino Guanciale) convince him that a black stone will render him invisible; while he goes off to find the rock, the two rogues get the whole town in on the joke, so Calandrino behaves like an ass thinking he can’t be seen.
Next, Duke Tancredi (Lello Arena) discovers that his virginal daughter, Ghismonda (Kasia Smutniak), is having an affair with his retainer Guiscardo (Michele Riondino). The fourth story involves Isabetta (Carolina Crescentini), a beautiful nun caught in flagrante in the convent. The other nuns rush to tell the fierce Abbess Usimbalda (Paola Cortellesi), but she’s not true to her vow of chastity, either. In the final tale, Federico degli Alberighi (Josafat Vagni) loves the widow Giovanna (Jasmine Trinca), hoping to win her heart through her son’s delight in his falcon.
In interviews, the Taviani brothers have been saying that the modern world is facing numerous plagues, specifically spiritual and economic, so the idea of a new “Decameron” is meant to connect with the idea of escaping the ailments of contemporary society through the power of storytelling and love. If that’s really their aim, the directors have failed to find a context, and nothing here conveys the sense of parallel between the 14th century and today. “Wondrous Boccaccio” is neither an update nor a worthy tribute, and the five tales are pallidly told, devoid of the sly critiques the author aimed at the manners and mores of his time.
The cast of young, fresh-faced hopefuls playing the aristocratic narrators aren’t given any personalities to work with, while the higher-wattage stars embodying the conjured characters have trouble making an impact. Unlike the stark artistry of d.p. Simone Zampagni’s lensing on “Caesar Must Die,” the visuals here have an almost TV feel in their pronounced clarity, far too often overlit and devoid of grit (even the plague sores look clean). Luckily, location shooting in some of Tuscany and Lazio’s most beautiful buildings offers extra-narrative pleasures, though the music is obtrusive.