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Friday, Aug. 25, 2006

Longing for love like the old days

Real romance is becoming a rarity in today's cinema. Even in love stories, characters just aren't written to remain romantic. They get distracted by pressing, modern-day issues and an increasingly depleted attention span. In that sense, "Dopo Mezzanotte (Turin, 24-ji Karano Koibito Tachi)" is an intensely romantic film in which unremarkable lives are touched by and transformed through uh, love. Yes, LOVE: not lust or the desire to overpower the other or any of its hundreds of guises, but the genuine article.

Dopo Mezzanotte Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Fabio Troiano (left), Francesca Inaudi (centr) and Giorgio Pasotti in "Doppo Mezzanotte"

Director: Davide Ferrario
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: Italian
Now showing (Aug. 25, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

In one scene, a boy confesses his love for a girl, but instead of saying a lot of mumbo jumbo he shows her some black and white footage that he took of her getting off a bus at a crowded terminal and heading to work. His gaze injects poetry into what's otherwise a very ordinary scene and the girl is so moved she can't speak. What he's doing is precarious; one false move and his gesture could be interpreted as pure creepiness but as it is, it's sweet and discreet and utterly romantic. It's the kind of thing movie characters just don't do anymore.

Directed by Italy's Davide Ferrario, "Dopo" is set in his birthplace of Turin and is a tribute to the city as well as to antique cinema, most notably Buster Keaton. The director clearly nurses a longing for movies of old, when both the medium and its characters were innocent and defined by poignancy, when the world of celluloid immediately translated to the world of romantic fantasy.

Aptly, the aforementioned boy, Martino (Giorgio Pasotti), is a night watchman at Mole Antonelliana: the landmark, 167 1/2-meter-high building smack in the center of Turin, completed in the late 19th century. Originally designed as a Jewish temple, it's now a cavernous and labyrinthine museum of cinema which Ferrario's lens lingers over with almost fetishistic delight. Martino navigates the Mole's long, dark corridors, fondles the vintage camera equipment and makes short films of street scenes in black and white, in such a way that there's almost no distinction between these and the prewar documentary footage of the city that he unearths from the archives. The Mole is Martino's cocoon -- as long as he's within these walls he has no need to be confronted by the perilous outside world.

Yet even he has a love interest: the boyishly attractive Amanda (Francesca Inaudi), who works the night shift at the burger joint several doors down the street. Sporting a bold crew cut and micro-mini, Amanda looks deserving of a more glamorous life, but her routine is pretty dreary: distributing leaflets by day and flipping patties by night. In between times, she tries in vain to secure Friday night dates with her sexy gangster boyfriend, Angelo (Fabio Troiano), who inevitably has other fish to fry and won't even answer her calls. Martino has no inkling of Amanda's life nor does it occur to him to try speaking to her; the most we see him do is appear nightly at the burger joint and buy take-out that he never eats (he hates junk food, and seemingly subsists on apples).

But one night reality finally grabs Martino, literally by his lapels. A distraught Amanda comes into the Mole seeking refuge from the police (she had poured some oil onto the pants of her unbearable boss and fled). The shy Martino politely offers her total use of his tiny apartment tucked away on the top floor of the Mole, then retreats to the projection room where he immerses himself in Keaton films. Amanda is intrigued and pounces on him several nights later when his guard is down. In the meantime Angelo, whose interest in Amanda is piqued as soon as she disappears and the police come looking, keeps calling her cell phone. This time it's her turn to ignore his calls and keep her whereabouts a secret. What with Martino, the Mole and archival films, she's too preoccupied to deal with Angelo just yet.

When she finally gets around to doing so, what follows is a menage a trois mindful of the Francois Truffaut classic "Jules et Jim," albeit less compelling. Amanda is sparky, but she lacks the command and femme fatale aura that the young Jeanne Moreau wore like a little black dress, and Martino is too pensive and passive by far to hold up his end. Angelo has more potential in that sense, but being a true-blue Italian, the idea of sharing his girlfriend with another man soon depresses the hell out of him. He loses his bad-boy demeanor and begins to mope. The trio were at their best inside the protective walls of the Mole, but away from it their relationship and the film itself, falters and frays. Martino knows before the other two that their new arrangement is bound to fail -- as he observes with disarming simplicity: "Real life is different from the movies."

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