In John Turturro's ambitious and arresting American tragicomedy, the actor-director invents himself an artistic tradition.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In a world of canny operators who make movies with one eye on a demographic calculus and the other on Tina Brown and her empire of murmur, John Turturro's integrity and attention to craft seem almost monastic. He's the freak in the hair shirt, hand-inking illuminated manuscripts in the Mall of America. "Illuminata," Turturro's second film as a director (after 1992's "Mac"), suggests that he wants to enlist himself in an artistic tradition -- or invent one -- that's virtually untouched by Hollywood. Although it's an often hilarious sexual roundelay, "Illuminata" far transcends the genre of farce. At its core, it's a heartbreakingly beautiful tragicomedy about art, love and artifice, with a script of rare humor and complexity and some of the most enjoyably freewheeling performances in years. But there's something quixotic, even lonely, about it too. "Illuminata" fearlessly attaches itself to the neglected legacy of classical Western theater, and the theater-derived films of Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman, and acts as if the Hitchcock/noir/men-with-guns cinema that so preoccupies younger filmmakers these days never existed.

Turturro stars as Tuccio, a frustrated young playwright married to Rachel (Katherine Borowitz, Turturro's real-life spouse), the manager and star of a large and rather sloppy troupe of actors. Rachel and company are engaged at a struggling theater owned by a comically warring couple, Pallenchio (the marvelous Irish actor Donal McCann) and Astergourd (the larger-than-life Beverly D'Angelo). We are supposed to be in Manhattan, circa 1905, and there are a few historical markers scattered about -- automobiles are not yet common and Ibsen is known but not universally accepted. But the script by Turturro and his friend and collaborator Brandon Cole (adapted from Cole's stage play) is really set in an almost abstract backstage reality; it's somewhere between Shakespeare's time and our own, and that's what matters. Cole's one-name characters -- Tuccio, Pallenchio, Marco, Flavio, Beppo, et al. -- clearly echo the pseudo-Italian names in the Bard's comedies, and the hilariously vainglorious actress played by Susan Sarandon is named Celimene, the beloved of Molihre's "The Misanthrope."

But "Illuminata" is not some dry postmodern exercise, nor is it anything like Woody Allen's often labored Bergman imitations. If Cole and Turturro have clearly studied Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night," arguably the greatest of all film comedies, they have learned the right lessons from it. "Illuminata" teems with its own sense of life, crackles with daring, walks the tightrope between satire and pathos with a rare assuredness. When we see Rachel's company launch into a production of "Cavalleria Rusticana" (the melodramatic play, not the melodramatic opera), it's clearly atrocious. But we've already invested enough emotion in these characters, especially the graceful and dignified Rachel, that we want to like this desperate play despite ourselves. Similarly, when Old Flavio (Ben Gazzara), an aging actor who's constantly coughing up bits of disconnected Shakespearean dialogue, begins declaiming Prospero's closing monologue from "The Tempest," Turturro's camera wanders to the ludicrous Pallenchio, sitting in the orchestra. He begins to speak the lines along with Flavio, and at a single stroke we see the cuckolded theater proprietor as a tragic, not a comic figure -- a failed actor with the words of a dying sorcerer locked in his heart.

When a young actor collapses and nearly dies onstage during "Cavalleria," Tuccio seizes the opportunity to stage a production of his own play, "Illuminata." A realistic drama about a man who cheats on his wife with a beautiful young woman, but whose wife cannot tear herself away, "Illuminata" seems to reflect uncomfortably on Tuccio's marriage to Rachel, who plays the wife opposite Tuccio's loyal if airheaded friend Dominique (Rufus Sewell). Clearly lacking a convincing ending, "Illuminata" opens abysmally and is savaged by the vicious critic Bevalaqua (Christopher Walken), an outrageous blend of Oscar Wilde and Mario Lanza. The domineering Astergourd announces that "Illuminata" will be closed in favor of "A Doll's House" -- significantly, a play in which a wife leaves her husband -- and the film's complex sexual machinery is set in motion. Intoxicated with his own wounded self-importance, and insulted by Rachel's insistence that they need to eat, Tuccio dismisses her, suggesting she tell Astergourd: "I, the great Rachel, lover to the mediocrity Tuccio, am here to eat. Give me Ibsen and some sausage."

If the uncomfortable liaisons that flow from this are too numerous to mention, what's most important is the marvelous fluency with which Turturro handles very difficult, finely nuanced tones. If Tuccio's rendezvous with Celimene -- who is, if possible, even more self-involved than he -- is played for laughs, it nonetheless generates considerable erotic heat. Bevalaqua pursues the troupe's clown, Marco (Bill Irwin), but even this overheated "macaroni queen" is redeemed from caricature in the end, for all Walken's scenery chewing. When Rachel, Dominique and young Simone (Georgina Cates), Dominique's lover, rehearse Tuccio's play, the scene begins as a sparkling satire of actorly pretension: "You can't cross left to right?" asks Rachel incredulously. "Not emotionally, no," answers Simone. But within a few minutes, Rachel has wrenched the truth out of the younger woman -- Simone really does love Tuccio, and dreams that he will leave Rachel for her -- and we have left ersatz emotion behind for the real thing.

"Illuminata" is such a masterful accomplishment, from its astonishing ensemble cast to the lovely, unshowy cinematography of Harris Savides and the painstaking production design by Robin Standefer -- that I hesitate to make the most obvious criticism. But Tuccio, as a protagonist, remains something of a cipher, a weak link in the lavish tapestry of "Illuminata." He may redeem himself in Rachel's eyes (it's criminal, by the way, that an actress with Borowitz's talent and willowy, grown-up beauty isn't a star), but I was left feeling that he's still an arrogant jerk, and an indifferent playwright, who doesn't deserve her. We're meant to understand that Tuccio saves himself and then Rachel saves his play, but for the first time in Cole and Turturro's marvelous screenplay, the writing in the concluding scenes feels merely elegant, rather than convincing. This undercooked, passive role is a central, if not quite fatal, flaw in one of the most ambitious and arresting American films of recent years. Turturro is already one of our finest actors and, on this evidence, looks like a director of impressive range, prodigious human sympathy and unlimited potential. Perhaps doing both at once remains just beyond his grasp.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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