A sensual, sexual and intellectual awakening proves mostly asleepening in “Capri-Revolution,” a nobly intended period saga from high-minded Italian filmmaker and playwright Mario Martone that rather buckles under the weight of its exhaustively footnoted ideas. Set in the anxious months preceding World War I, and mapping out a battle of wits and wills between two contrastingly educated men for the soul of a humble lady goatherd on the sun-blasted slopes of Capri, Martone’s film plants a flag for liberal philosophical progress and cultural blending in the face of insular, buttoned-up conservatism. Which is all well and good, but can’t patch over the tired misogynistic undertones of a premise that effectively hinges on gaseous male egos oppressively mansplaining a young woman into liberation. Though it implores audiences to look outward, this attractively appointed Franco-Italian production is unlikely to travel far beyond its own shores.
Bowing in competition at Venice — a regular stomping ground for Martone since his 1992 debut, “Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician,” won the Grand Prix there — “Capri-Revolution” isn’t flattered by premiering mere months after Alice Rohrwacher’s “Happy as Lazzaro,” a wittier, more soulful extraction of sociopolitical musings from the travails of a holy fool in a threatened rural Italian idyll. In its opening stretches, however, Martone’s film carries a briefly promising shiver of curiosity and wonder, as it languidly builds the peaceable but limited world of Lucia (Marianna Fontana), a guileless, inquisitive young woman who has lived all her life amid the stones and scrub of Capri. While she compliantly tends to her family’s goats, she plainly yearns (via a serenely sorrowful facial expression that could break at any point into a rendition of the “Little Mermaid” ballad “Part of Your World”) for something more.
That something arrives in lascivious form when Lucia first stumbles upon a gaggle of nude sunbathers on the secluded rocks where she usually goes rambling — further than her boorish, abusive older brothers would like — with her livestock. These exotically pink-skinned invaders turn out to be members of a bohemian commune from northern Europe overseen, in the creepy, notionally charismatic manner of a cult leader, by performance artist Seybu (Reinout Scholten van Aschat). Seybu is a fictionalized, more romantically new-age version of real-life German painter Karl Diefenbach, who established a creatives’ commune in Capri between 1900 and 1913, incorporating Diefenbach’s forward-thinking hippie practices with artistic theory poached from Joseph Beuys.
That the film is set in 1914, seven years before Beuys was even born, is an anachronism intended to lend proceedings a dreamily elastic, out-of-time feel, though that’s rather undercut by the windy expanses of academic pontification that proceed to dominate the script, written by Martone and his art-historian partner Ippolita di Majo. They somehow fire up Lucia’s engines, however, as she swiftly falls under Seybu’s beardy, blank-gazed spell, giving up the goats for hazy days of naturist dancing, sexual discovery and levitational hallucinations, and going from illiterate to multilingual philosophy student in record time. Her simple, subsistence-focused family is less than thrilled with this development; they would rather marry Lucia off to a older local bigwig.
Making a more articulate attempt to lure her back from the boho brink of “this selfish individualism,” meanwhile, is young local doctor Carlo (Antonio Folletto), who winds up locked in a protracted exchange of worldviews with Seybu. This duel accounts for the film’s most turgid passages, hampered by stilted English-language dialogue as the two men hammer away at each other with such observations as, “There is only matter and spirit; there is no duality” and, “Art is the only tangible capital.”
It’s a battle between art and science in which neither side has brought its brightest soldiers to the field; within the former camp, meanwhile, internal schools of thought split and quarrel. By the time the growingly disenchanted Lucia suggests that everyone “go back to dancing in the woods,” it’s hard not to agree. Following up her auspicious debut in the 2016 Venice hit “Indivisible,” Fontana continues to prove herself an open, appealing screen presence, despite the frustratingly passive nature of Lucia’s internal revolution. What’s missing, however, is a palpable sense of chemistry between her and either of the two men out to free her mind, body and/or soul.
As shot with deep-blue widescreen clarity by Michele D’Attanasio, Capri is presented to the audience more from the perspective of the enamored new arrivals than its weathered, callused native sons and daughters. The film’s most arresting formal element is a dissonant electro score by German ambient duo Sascha Ring and Philipp Thimm, which skitters between ominous and euphoric modes, and further plants the film on the side of cultural progress and disruption. Would that the rest of “Capri-Revolution” had more avant-garde conviction.