Monday, November 13, 2017

Cinema Italian Style: Wife & Husband/Let Yourself Go

I saw two wonderful Italian comedies at SIFF’s Cinema Italian Style festival last night.

The first, Wife & Husband, directed by Simone Godano, is in the classic body-switch genre.  Andrea is a neurosurgeon; his wife, Sofia, a rising talk-show host at a local TV station.  Their marriage is on the rocks.  They just can’t communicate.  But when a cognitive experiment involving both of them goes wrong, suddenly he’s in her body and she’s in his.

This is a hilarious comedy.  The concept may be long in the tooth but thanks to the performances of Kasnia Smutniak as Sofia and Pierfrancesco Favino as Andrea this film is as fresh and lively as one could wish.  Unlike Steve Martin in that other great body-switch comedy All of Me, these two tend to underplay their switched gender roles.  This restraint pays off, scarcely a joke falls flat.  Favino was especially good.  With his furrowed face and three-day old beard he conveys Sofia’s emotions with the slightest of gestures.  One of the funniest scenes is of him (now Sofia) talking warmly and confidingly to the couple’s attractive, young babysitter, who we can see is falling madly in love with this tall, dark, sensitive man.  And Smutniak brought down the house several times with her stone-faced attempts to sit naturally (while a man) in a short skirt and pantyhose on her TV show.  Some actresses would have gone broad with those scenes, shifting and fidgeting, milking it; instead Smutniak merely plants herself in the seat in some awkward and inappropriate position (legs wide open while the TV camera is aimed up her crotch) and then doesn’t budge for the rest of the scene.

In Let Yourself Go Toni Servillo plays Elia, a middle-aged Jewish psychotherapist who is warned by his doctor to get some exercise or suffer the consequences of diabetes.  The irascible, stodgy shrink (who is separated from his wife) winds up hiring a personal trainer - the young, energetic, and beautiful Claudia, played by Veronica Echegui, who turns his world upside down, kills that bug up his ass, and makes him re-embrace life.  At the end, Elia and his wife are back together.

This is the best Woody Allen movie I’ve seen in years.  This is largely due to the fact that Woody Allen had nothing to with it.  Clearly, director Francesco Amato and co-screenwriter Francesco Bruni have been saturated in the comedies of Allen, Nora Ephron, James Brooks, and Nancy Meyers.  Let Yourself Go is in many ways an homage to this genre of American romantic-comedy but it is far better than any of the works we’ve lately seen from its originators.  (OK, Ephron’s been dead since 2012 but my point still stands.)  Amato and Bruni have purged away the dreck, the embarrassing and cringe-inducing moments which plague the films of their American predecessors (think of the pie in the face at the end of Heartbreak, or the horrifying “list of things that make life worth living” from Manhattan) and what’s left is pure comedy: urbane, witty, clever, warm, with just a hint of screwball to it.

As with Wife & Husband the two leads are outstanding.  Echegui, decked out in loud, flashy tights for much of the film, is radiant, bringing to Claudia a child-like optimism and energy.  One day, hopefully, there will be a film just about her gorgeous eyes.  The word “taciturn” kept popping into my mind as I watched Toni Servillo.  Despite everything Elia is subjected to (a punch, a kidnapping, arson, erectile disfunction) Servillo never deprives him of his intelligence and world-weary dignity.  It’s a rich performance.  His Elia is a child too: narcissistic, petulant, his life one big, if quiet, tantrum.  Servillo’s laconic delivery of asides, throw away lines and outright gags is priceless.  Here’s a sample.  When Elia’s wife tells him that she’s going out that night with a male friend to a jazz club, the jealous husband coolly observes that in the past they’ve both agreed that the only good thing about the Fascists was their banning of jazz.  Nice. 

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