Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

Roman Hollywood

By David Luhrssen
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Film production was encouraged in Mussolini’s Italy, and although few Fascist era movies are well known nowadays, the careers of important postwar directors such as Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni began in those years. Italy had its own Hollywood, Cinecitta, a sprawling Roman fantasy factory with all the accouterments of its American counterparts.

The Cinecitta setting provides much of the pleasure in the 2007 film The Moon & the Stars (out now on DVD). Spring is turning into the summer of 1939 and the storm clouds of World War II are gathering on the story’s horizon. Meanwhile it’s on with the show, an adaptation of Puccini’s opera Tosca. The film’s gay Jewish producer Rieti (Alfred Molina), protected for a price by a ranking Fascist official, is working with a petulant Hungarian director and an international cast including German star Kristina Baumgarten (Catherine McCormack) and worldly English thespian James Clavel (Jonathan Pryce).

The opera’s theme of liberty, equality and treachery is amplified by events in the real world outside Cinecitta’s gates. Rieti is outed by a Fascist gossip columnist, the financiers want a happier ending, the police arrest the Bolshevik set designer and Kristina (an unhappily married woman) falls in love with James. The Moon & theStars is troubled by a goofy subplot involving a Kristina stalker and actors who play their characters at the scale of television, not the cinema. Balanced against the flaws are lovely cinematography, Pryce’s exuberant performance as a cynic clinging to his sense of humor and Molina’s close to the vest depiction of a man with many reasons to worry.

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