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Happy Family -- Film Review

9:10 PM PDT 10/14/2010 by Natasha Senjanovic , AP


ROME -- "Happy Family," from Gabriele Salvatores (the director of the Oscar-winning "Mediterraneo"), is an adaptation of a successful play, itself a modern reworking of Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author." Unfortunately, the references don't end there. Depending on how you look at it, the colorful and light-hearted film is either a tribute to cinema or simply art imitating art.

Audiences not overly familiar with the allusions will find "Happy Family" enjoyable, and apparently an American remake is on the table, which would bring the film full circle as it heavily tips its hat to "Deconstructing Harry," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Usual Suspects," "Annie Hall" and "The Graduate" (the soundtrack is almost entirely Simon and Garfunkel). But these films are so deeply ingrained in the collective imagination that comparisons come up short, especially since the film's own storyline breaks no new ground.

The set design and costumes are the film's strongest points. The surreal, chromatic schemes -- entire sequences are decked out in bright reds, yellows, greens and so on -- are bold and give "Happy Family" its clearest source of whimsy.

Recently dumped screenwriter Ezio (Fabio De Luigi) is having trouble banging out a story about two neurotic families whose paths cross because their teenage children want to marry. The family members (played by Diego Abatantuono and Margherita Buy and a superb Fabrizio Bentivoglio, among others) introduce themselves to the camera in the first part of the film, too often repeating what other characters have said.

Ezio soon writes himself into his script (and into a love story) while the characters bug him about having bigger, better roles. And finding the proper ending to a proper story -- not "something artsy that only critics will like."

Ezio also speaks to the camera, explaining that most people live by their fears, that life is film and film life. But film is also artifice, and it's more interesting to watch personalities and problems unfold with subtlety than be told what they are. Neither De Luigi nor the film (written by Salvatores and Alessandro Genovesi, adapting his play) has enough of the Woody Allen touch, of making neurotic fears both smart and farcical.

Bentivoglio gently steals each of his scenes as a dying pater familias, and is best when playing off the ever-lovable Abatantuono (the other father of the story). The film's best moment comes two-thirds of the way in, when the men share a joint shortly upon meeting, and are convinced they've met before.

Both starred in Salvatores' "Marrakech Express" (1989) and subsequent "On Tour" (1990) and the deja vu is a nod to those films. Once again though, the nostalgia for the original is greater than what we're seeing on screen, even if by then the characters have settled into interacting with one another more than with us.

A black and white sequence of a nocturnal Milan -- of real faces and places not connected to the film -- accompanied by Chopin is a beautiful but disjointed element.

Opens: March 26 (Italy)
Production companies: Colorado Film, RAI Cinema
Sales: Rai Trade
Cast: Fabio De Luigi, Diego Abatantuono, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Margherita Buy, Carla Signoris, Valeria Billelo, Gianmaria Biancuzzi, Alice Croci
Director: Gabriele Salvatores
Screenwriter: Alessandro Genovesi, Gabriele Salvatores
Based on the play by: Alessandro Genovesi
Producer: Maurizio Totti
Director of photography: Italo Petriccione
Production designer: Rita Rabassini
Costume designer: Patrizia Chericoni
Editor: Massimo Fiocchi
No rating, 90 minutes

In 1988, during the first round of auditions to cast the lead boy in his next film, the director Giuseppe Tornatore asked eight-year-old Salvatore Cascio what cinema meant to him. The young Cascio thought for a moment. "For me," he said, "cinema is like an enormous television."

"He looked a bit taken aback, and then he laughed," says Cascio, now 34, and speaking from his home near the Sicilian town of Palazzo Adriano, where Tornatore shot much of Cinema Paradiso. "I'd never even been to the cinema before – I didn't really know what it was. So I think my answer amused him. Perhaps it's what got me the part."

Perhaps. It seems more likely, though, that Tornatore was drawn to the young Cascio – known to all as Totò, the Sicilian diminutive for Salvatore, and the name also given to his character in the film – for his huge dark eyes, impish grin, and remarkable on-screen naturalness.

The young Totò is just one of three incarnations of the character. The film starts with the adult Totò (Jacques Perrin), a famous film director, learning of the death of his old friend Alfredo (beautifully played by Philippe Noiret), a projectionist in his Sicilian hometown, and recalling how their friendship, and his nascent love of cinema, shaped his childhood and adolescence. Then there is the teenage Totò, played by hunky Marco Leonardi. But of the three Totòs, it is Cascio who lingers longest in the memory: falling asleep in his altar-boy frock in the opening scene; twitching back the cinema curtains for a forbidden glimpse of the big screen; tormenting poor Alfredo until the projectionist has no option but to teach the boy his trade.

It is now 25 years since Cinema Paradiso, one of the most internationally acclaimed films in modern Italian cinema, was released. The film's legions of British fans (including Philip French, who once chose Tornatore's movie as one of the best films about cinema ever made) are in for a pre-Christmas treat: a new version of Cinema Paradiso, restored from the original camera negative. A Blu-ray release will follow, featuring both the restored version and the longer (and, for many, less successful) director's cut.

Tornatore was just 32 when he made Cinema Paradiso, his second feature. The film flopped initially. But a new cut, released in 1990, propelled it to awards success in the shape of an Oscar for best foreign language film and a clutch of Baftas, cementing Tornatore's reputation as a director of note. For many, it remains his best picture, though personally I'd struggle to choose between Cinema Paradiso and Malèna, his emotional 2000 film featuring Monica Bellucci as a vulnerable widow in wartime Sicily, whose descent into prostitution is observed by a group of adolescent boys.

For Cascio – now two years older than Tornatore was when he cast him in the film – Cinema Paradiso has, in many ways, shaped his life. He went on to star in a clutch of other films (with Marcello Mastroianni in Tornatore's Everybody's Fine, remade recently for Hollywood with Robert De Niro, and, more bizarrely, Robbie Coltrane, in the Vatican corruption comedy The Pope Must Die) but never quite made a successful transition from child star to adult actor.

Cascio now runs a restaurant and B&B named L'Oscar dei Sapori, in what I assume is a playful reference to Cinema Paradiso's Academy award (the name roughly translates, I think, as "the Oscar for best cooking"), and he is writing a book about the film's making. Its international popularity means he is still much in demand: last weekend, he was given an award at a festival in Toledo, Spain, and he's been invited to attend another set of 25th-anniversary celebrations in Buenos Aires next spring.

Cascio is, he says, perfectly happy with still being best known for a part he played more than two decades ago. "When you start out as a child star, the transition to adult actor is a difficult one. As a child, you act in a very natural, spontaneous way – you're just playing around. But as you get older, acting begins to seem like something you need to study; it becomes like work. I never really wanted to be an actor. I'm very happy for Cinema Paradiso to be my calling card."

Understandably, given how young he was at the time, Cascio retains only vague memories of filming. "I was the crew mascot," he says. "Everyone was sweet with me; I told them funny stories, and they looked after me. I did find filming tiring – it was summer, and I just wanted to be off with my friends, playing football, riding my bike. But at that age, you just take it in your stride: even winning a Bafta just seems normal. It was only years later that I realised what it all really meant. Now I feel very proud to have been a part of it."

It's no accident that Cinema Paradiso's nostalgic celebration of the power of great film-making, and of cinema as a communal experience, so captured audiences' imaginations. It came at a time when home video was leaving live cinema in the doldrums, with many film theatres falling derelict across Europe and the US: the present-day demolition of the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso to make way for a municipal car-park is one of the film's most powerful scenes.

The film's overall tone, too, is elegiac: it must have been easy, when Cinema Paradiso first came out, to see it as a swansong for movie-going – to imagine that, in a few years' time, no local cinema would again have the same ability to bring together an isolated rural community, opening a window into other worlds.

A quarter of a century later, we know that such worries were more or less unfounded: cinema-going is still alive and well, despite the triple-headed threat of DVD, Blu-ray and the internet, and many small independent cinemas are thriving. But for Cascio, and for the film's many fans, its message remains very relevant.

"Cinema Paradiso is about the power of dreams," he says. "In the film, we see the people go to the cinema to dream: by watching great movies, they forget all their problems. In becoming a great film director, Totò achieves his own personal dream, too. In today's world, with this crisis that we're all experiencing both in politics and in society, the film reminds us that we can, and must, keep on dreaming."

• Cinema Paradiso is released on 13 December and will be available in the Guardian Screening Room. Cinema Paradiso: 25th Anniversary Remastered Edition is released on Blu-ray on 16 December.


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