Appellate Judge James A. Stewart finds stuff under the Tuscan sun that Frances Mayes wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.
"You shouldn't have brought them here."
One of the occasional pleasures of reviewing DVDs is the chance to learn about a director or sub-genre you haven't been exposed to before. Recently, I had my first encounter with Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, two brothers and co-directors, as I reviewed The Night of the Shooting Stars. Will they continue to work their magic in Fiorile, my second encounter with their direction?
Facts of the Case
When the two Benedetti tykes hear the maids calling the family "Maledetti" instead—cursed instead of blessed—they have a few questions for dad Luigi. So naturally he tells them the family legend, which viewers see in the form of three vignettes:
• It all began with Elisabetta, who falls in love with French lieutenant Jean (Michael Vartan, Alias) in the Tuscan woods as Napoleon's troops are coming into the area. While he's making fast friends with Elisabetta, her brother, Corrado, is heisting the chest of gold coins that was supposedly under his guard. Jean's regiment will execute him if the chest is not promptly returned. Before he is shot by the firing squad, Jean writes a love letter to Elisabetta, calling her "my Fiorile," or "blossom." She doesn't know who stole the coins, but forces her brother to vow that he will have no peace until the culprit is found.
• A century later, politician and all-around stinker Alessandro Benedetti impregnates his sister Elisa and chases away her true love—misdeeds that don't go unpunished.
• Massimo Benedetti, as a boy, calls on Jean's spirit for moral support. As a man, he joins the underground during World War II and sees his beloved carted away by the Fascists.
The dreamlike nature of the Taviano brothers' movies is seen quickly in Fiorile as the two tykes listen to the beginning of their dad's story and see—or believe they see—Napoleonic soldiers emerging from the woods. Backed by the beautiful Tuscan scenery and a surface romantic air, Fiorile might at first seem like a "fairytale" or "a charming story," as the booklet accompanying the DVD says. In reality, it's more like the original stories that spawned fairytales: dark and a little frightening.
While the scenery is beautiful—how could it not be in Tuscany?—the story contains themes of thieving, murder, betrayal, and incest. It's not the sort of light story that most people would tell their kids on a trip, but most people aren't Luigi—or the Taviani brothers. Rather than charming, the well-crafted Fiorile resembles a Hitchcock movie.
Is fate inescapable? The elderly Massimo thinks so. He's horrified when Luigi brings his kids to the family estate. His obsession with the family curse emphasizes this message, as does Elisa's horror at the unintended consequences when she takes revenge on Alessandro. Another theme that runs through the movie is dashed hopes. Jean, for example, sits in the town square waiting for the thief to return the chest of gold. When he hears a noise, he hides his eyes and calls out, believing that the thief has returned. When he opens his eyes to find that it's only a dog carrying an empty basket, he begins to sob. The false hope is repeated in the morning; a mule pulls up as the firing squad is getting ready for the execution, but it turns out to be no reprieve. Later, Elisa hopes to be with a lover, and Massimo hopes to escape a family curse.
Repetitive casting helps tie Fiorile together: Michael Vartan plays Jean in the first vignette, returning later as Massimo; Galatea Ranzi plays Elizabetta in the first story, and then Elisa; and Claudio Bigagli plays both offending brothers, Corrado and Alessandro. The performances generally work well, and I didn't find myself paying too much attention to the gimmick.
The stories are also tied together by repetitive images. Simple adult Renzo curls up in a childlike ball in a corner as his brother Alessandro and sister Elisa argue, for example, and we see that again when the contemporary Beneditti boy curls up in a worried ball while visiting grandfather Massimo. When Massimo is faced with execution, he writes a letter to his love, as Jean did centuries before. Naturally, the movie ends with a couple of those repetitive gestures. Do you read something ominous into them, or do you take them as the momentary reactions of children frightened by an old family story? At least three possible meanings came to mind as the credits rolled.
The movie looks and sounds beautiful, and I didn't notice any technical glitches which would diminish that pleasure.
In "The Boys From San Miniato" featurette, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani discuss their movies. It's more focused than a similar feature on The Night of the Shooting Stars, and includes their criticisms of documentary shorts they did early in their joint career. Film clips are plentiful as well. The DVD also includes a trailer which captures much of Fiorile's mystery.
Peter Bondanella's essay in the accompanying booklet calls Fiorile "a Marxist fairytale," portraying its aristocratic family as one that lives off a stolen, cursed fortune, and mentions the Taviani brothers' Marxist leanings. While they may have strong political views, Fiorile didn't strike me as a political work. While not a pure thriller, Fiorile has an ominous undercurrent throughout.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I found The Night of the Shooting Stars much more complex, I also found it much more meaningful, with its wartime themes delivering a surprising impact. Fiorile, although it has themes of fate and hope, doesn't leave as much to reflect on; it's an entertaining, if dark, movie. If you want to start exploring the cinematic world of the Tavianis, the choice of simple or complex is up to you.
Well, I'm still impressed with the Taviani brothers after my second encounter with their work. If you don't mind a few subtitles, it's worth a look.
Not guilty. If you steal any coins from French soldiers, be sure to return them so it stays that way.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• "The Boys From San Miniato"
Review content copyright © 2008 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.