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‘The Peacock’s Paradise’ Review: Family Melodramatics Land as Heavily as a Flightless Bird Plummeting from a Balcony

A family of neurotics is prompted, by the fate of a pet peacock, to reveal their secrets in Laura Bispuri's tediously self-involved drama.

The Peacock's Paradise
Courtesy of Vivo Films, Match Factory Productions

Some creatures waste away when they’re domesticated, pining for the freedom of the outdoors. That seems to be the case not only for the immensely improbable, leadenly symbolic peacock at the center of Laura Bispuri’s “The Peacock’s Paradise,” but also for Bispuri’s flair for characterization and absorbingly grounded melodrama, which comes tamely indoors after the vibrant, windblown elementalism of “Sworn Virgin” and “Daughter of Mine,” and vanishes.

In the stultifying environment of a small coastal apartment, “The Peacock’s Paradise” follows a family of unbearably self-involved secret-keepers at a reunion that precipitates an entire telenovela’s worth of soapy revelation in the space of a single afternoon. Long-term same-sex affairs are discovered; dormant passions are reawakened; new lovers are betrayed; a history of institutionalization is dredged up; financial petitions are broached; and a clinically mute character speaks, delivering one single, loaded comment that scriptwriters Bispuri and Silvana Tamma seem to think will really set our minds a-whirring, when all it does is set our eyes a-rolling. It’s hard not to feel vaguely resentful of the eponymous bird, who early on has the good sense to take his chances with the whole flightlessness thing and fling himself from an upper story balcony, purely, one imagines, to get away from these silly people.

First, there’s a little scene-setting, as two carloads of character contrivances, neuroses and repressed desires arrive at the apartment belonging to Nena (Dominique Sanda) and her husband Umberto (Carlo Cerciello), for the celebration of Nena’s birthday. In one car, Nena’s big, mild, milquetoast son Vito (Leonardo Lidi) drives his twangingly nervy girlfriend Adelina (Alba Rohrwacher, now three for three with Bispuri) and their precociously philosophical little girl Alma (Carolina Michelangeli). They have also brought their pet peacock, a splendid specimen called Paco, because he “doesn’t like being left alone,” projects Adelina, tremulously played by Rohrwacher as though made of eggshells and lightbulb glass tenuously held together by an Alice band.

In the second car is Vito’s professionally successful but personally frazzled sister Caterina (Maya Sansa), who is for some obscure reason being given a lift by her ex, Manfredi (Fabrizio Ferracane) and his new girlfriend Joana (Tihana Lazovic). The family do not know Caterina and Manfredi broke up, which Manfredi, an unlikable, wolfish character with little to recommend him to one woman let alone two, exploits. With some short-term plan of getting Caterina back in mind, he leaves long-suffering Joana in the car then comes up to the house on the pretext of wishing Nena happy birthday. Once he’s in the door, Caterina can’t get rid of him, for fear he’ll reveal their breakup — one of those situations that has managed to become a movie/TV cliché despite never having happened to anyone in real life.

Also attending this cosy do — in fact doing most of the work of putting it together — is live-in housekeeper Lucia (Maddalena Crippa), whom we’ve already seen give Nena a full-on smooch, so we know what’s going there even if Nena’s clueless kids do not, and Lucia’s daughter Grazia (Ludovica Alvazzi dal Frate), who does not speak. Also, Isabella (Yle Vianello), some sort of cousin or niece shows up, for not much reason other than to add her recent breakup to the simmering stew of relationship woe that is about to come, dully, to a boil.

The pale palette of Vladan Radovic’s photography does give the images a certain scrubbed, seaside-y feel, but even he can’t do much to work dynamism into a story that largely takes place in a few indoor rooms. So Nando Di Cosimo’s violin and cello score compensates by working overtime to inject tragedy and unearned drama into anodyne shots of car journeys and whispered conversations on sofas. And no one, behind or in front of the camera ever seems to know what do to with the peacock, a metaphor at once so brashly heavy-handed and yet so solemnly treated that its presence knocks over whatever delicate furniture the film has otherwise arranged, just as Paco literally does, at one point by unfurling his show-stopping plumage to the disarrangement of Nena’s tchotchkes.

It is at least a spot of literal color in this otherwise aggravatingly wispy and precious film, but it is not enough. Long before the family ventures outside (for an absurd ritual made actually funny by the gravity with which it’s treated); before these tiresome people discover each other’s not terribly impactful secrets; before the stilted theatrical silence that ensues is finally broken by the only character who hasn’t said anything daft until now only because she hasn’t said anything at all, you too may be eyeing that balcony, and the promise of sweet release it holds, with a deeply non-metaphorical longing.

‘The Peacock’s Paradise’ Review: Family Melodramatics Land as Heavily as a Flightless Bird Plummeting from a Balcony

Reviewed in Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 6, 2021. Running Time: 88 MIN. (Original title: "Il Paradiso del Pavone")

  • Production: (Italy-Germany) A Vivo Films, Rai Cinema, Match Factory Prods. production. (World sales: Match Factory, Cologne.) Producers: Marta Donzelli, Gregorio Paonessa. Co-producers: Viola Fügen, Michael Weber.
  • Crew: Director: Laura Bispuri. Screenplay: Silvana Tamma, Bispuri. Camera: Vladan Radovic. Editors: Carlotta Cristiani, Jacopo Quadri. Music: Nando Di Cosimo.
  • With: Dominique Sanda, Alba Rohrwacher, Maya Sansa, Carlo Cerciello, Fabrizio Ferracane, Leonardo Lidi, Tihana Lazović, Yile Yara Vianello, Ludovica Alvazzi Del Frate, Carolina Michelangeli, Maddalena Crippa.
  • Music By: