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Falling Stars

The Taviani brothers face their own family curse

There was a time when the Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, were regarded as standard-bearers for Italian film. Their 1981 movie The Night of the Shooting Stars demonstrated a wide range of cinematic and narrative virtues. A wheat-field fight between Mussolini sympathizers and fleeing villagers contained images that continue to grow in the viewer's imagination all these years later. Night also explored the ways storytelling and memory work in an almost novelistic manner. Some of its images were skewed just enough to show that they weren't literally happening in that moment, so the film ended up being as much about a grandmother sending her granddaughter off to sleep with a family tale as it was about World War II. Best of all, the Tavianis made it all look easy, as if these images and narrative strengths were simply their birthright, a natural combination of Italian folk culture and late 20th-century filmmaking technique.

But that's a musty notion these days. In Fiorile, their current offering, it feels like they're trying to reach back to earlier glory. Like Night, Fiorile is in part a story about storytelling. But instead of a grandmother shepherding a little one into sleep with a magical yarn, we get a family of Italian yuppies recounting familial legends of greed and retribution en route to grandpa's house.

As they drive through the Tuscan hills toward the family estate, the subject of grandfather's crotchety personality and the way he lives in almost total isolation comes up, and dad (Lino Capolicchio) mentions a family curse. The family wealth, he says, was won with bloody hands, and the Bendetti clan may still be paying for its sins.

The kids beg dad to tell the tale, and he responds with a three-parter that begins during the Napoleonic Wars and continues through WWII. Part one focuses on a young French soldier, eager to sow the seeds of egalitarianism in backward Italy, who is smitten by a local beauty. Blinded by love, he falls victim to the girl's brother, who steals some military gold that the soldier has been guarding. The soldier also plants a rather more old-fashioned seed than he'd intended. He's executed for losing the gold, but the peasant girl bears his son, thus beginning the Bendetti family line, and thus setting in motion the curse.

This first section is actually fairly interesting, but it ends just as its drama has come to a head. The young woman has learned that her brother caused her lover's death, and she curses him. I would rather have stayed with this family and watched this relationship fester than jump ahead a century to part two of the tale, in which a descendant of the peasant girl and the Frenchman is running for the Italian senate. This politician, now part of the upper crust thanks to the ill-gotten gold, has a sister who's in love with a peasant. Rather than live with this embarrassment, the brother sends the peasant and his family off to Argentina. Again, just when the story feels like it's getting started, it stops.

Then we return to the present and watch the yuppies drive a bit more before dad tells part three, the story of yet another generation. In this episode, a young Bendetti inspired by the spirit of his French ancestor is an anti-Fascist democrat, even if his wealthy family supports Mussolini. He tries to join the underground, but he flops. More humiliating still, his upper-class status protects him from the results of his failure. His comrades end up in front of a firing squad, but he is saved. Played out over two hours, this episode may have become interesting, but here the effort feels desultory, as if characters are merely being put through their paces.

When the current-day family finally reaches the family estate and greets the irascible grandfather (Renato Carpentieri) -- the young anti-Fascist now grown old and embittered -- we're let down even more. There is little resonance between him and the family legends. Worst of all, perhaps, is that the grandfather is only slightly more memorable than his utterly bland son, his son's wife and their largely generic children.

Days after seeing Fiorile I can scarcely remember an image or character. This is simply not a story that needed to be told. The Tavianis' old magic has apparently abandoned them.

 
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