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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005
A battle between head and heart
When I walked out of the screening for "Fanfan la Tulipe," the distributor's PR people cornered me for an opinion. "I'll see anything with Penelope Cruz in it" was about the most diplomatic line I could muster. But it's true, I have a soft spot for Penelope and will indulge many a mediocre movie in a way that I'd never consider for, say, Julia Roberts.
Of course when it's time to write up these films, I have to let the cool-headed critic override the starry-eyed, adoring fan in my heart. But with "Non ti muovere (Don't Move)," the gut-wrenching film on love and death by Italian director Sergio Castellitto, I'm in the happy position of being able to recommend both Penelope and the movie she's in. Actually, her performance is the best thing about the movie, and that's a nice surprise after the wispy roles she's been getting in Hollywood.
"Non ti muovere" is one of those films about a stormy, passionate, irrational love affair -- in other words, real. Think "Last Tango in Paris," "Damage" or even "Shitsurakuen." It's told from the perspective of a man torn between his wife and lover, but it was penned by a woman, author Margaret Mazzantini (also the director's wife.)
The story begins intensely and never lets up: There's a motorbike accident on a rainy street in Rome, and a critically injured girl is rushed to the hospital. As she hovers between life and death, the girl's father Timoteo (played by director Castellitto), a doctor at the hospital, keeps a vigil outside her room. Plagued by worry and grief, his thoughts return to the memory of another loved one he lost.
Cut to a flashback on a very hot day in a small, impoverished country town. Timoteo's car has broken down, and he's trying to find a mechanic during siesta-time. He stops in a tiny, seedy bar for a drink, where his suit seems instantly out of place.
Enter Penelope Cruz as the barmaid, Italia. She's deep into a low-rent, anti-glamour approach, as was her rival Nicole Kidman in "The Human Stain." She's got the same gum-chewing slutty look, teetering on heels with a skirt that's dangerously short, and garish makeup that screams "streetwalker." Cruz completes the metamorphosis by performing in Italian (which she learned for this film) and adopting a wounded gaze of blank resignation. This is not a Cruz we've seen before; though not quite on the level of what Charlize Theron did for "Monster," the transformation is still striking.
Italia offers to let Timoteo use her phone. She takes him to her apartment in a trashed, derelict building, and makes him coffee. After making his call, Timoteo returns to the bar, but the combination of the vodka, the sun, Italia's short skirt, and mixed signals send him back to her place. In a shockingly rough scene, he forces himself upon her, in sex that's too blunt to seem consensual. Italia lets it happen, but this reflects a defeated passivity more than any sort of attraction, the air of a woman who's long since come to accept abuse as her lot in life.
A few days later Timoteo returns to apologize, recognizing his actions for what they were. But he ends up forcing himself on her again, his hands around her neck, taking her from behind. This is not romantic sex, especially when Timoteo leaves her a fistful of lira.
And yet, Timoteo keeps coming back, and Italia keeps opening her door for him. No doubt this will prove too much for some, who will resent the portrayal of such a passive woman ipso facto. The thing to remember here, though, is that reality doesn't always meet our ideals, and good films will challenge us with realities beyond our own experience. This film insists that when sex is involved, we are driven by the irrational.
"Non ti muovere" knows exactly what it's doing; it's not accepting Timoteo's actions, but showing us how society makes it easy for a man of wealth, education and good-standing to think he can take advantage of a poor, uncouth and single woman.
Timoteo has almost nothing in common with Italia, and yet he's drawn to her, carnally at first, but what the film captures well is how lust slowly blossoms into affection. It's hard to understand why Timoteo falls for Italia; his wife, Elsa (Claudia Gerini), is a stunning blonde, his social and intellectual equal. But she's also a very forceful woman. Maybe for Timoteo it's an issue of control. Or perhaps it's something more fundamental. The scene where he comes home after a business trip and Elsa can barely bother to look up from her computer says it all.
It's harder to say what draws Italia to Timoteo. Maybe, at first, he represents something different from the world around her. He at least feels guilt about his actions, which -- it is implied -- is uncommon in the rough world she resides in. Perhaps he's a meal ticket. But what "Non ti muovere" emphasizes is how out of such mixed needs and desires, sometimes love does arise.
Italia and Timoteo become increasingly passionate. He can't get her off his mind, she awaits his visits from the city. Italia wants to have children, and so does Timoteo, while his wife doesn't. He promises Italia he'll tell Elsa everything and make the final split, but then . . . fate strikes, with tragedy close behind.
As a director, Castellitto isn't above melodrama, but he balances this by letting messy, imperfect emotions go their course. He's not afraid of letting his own characters look bad, or prolonging an uncomfortable moment, like when Timoteo bundles his wife into a cab with an excuse when he catches a glimpse of Italia on a busy street. The magic-realist ending seeks to find some mystical resolution to a situation that's beyond repair, but that doesn't take away from a film that delivers plenty to think about.