Sunday, July 27, 2008

Missed Connections

Actions have consequences. One simple deed can set in motion a string of events which will alter a person's life. For better or worse, the ripple effect which follows that action is what propels countless plots toward their denouement. Looking for an idea for a film? Just ask yourself "What if?"

How many times have you wondered what might have happened if you had done something differently? Or what happened to the person you assumed would react in a certain way, but didn't? All one has to do is log onto the Missed Connections section of Craig's List to enter a maelstrom of good intentions, dashed hopes and unrequited love.

Two films being showcased at this month's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival examine what happens when sudden encounters bring unanticipated results. Written and directed by Jan Schutte (based on three short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer), Love Comes Lately follows the confused escapades of an elderly writer whose memory is failing and who has trouble distinguishing between what happens in his dreams and in real life. Why does he keep ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is he an angel of death? Are the women in his life -- or his dreams -- just there to tempt, seduce and then torment him? Why has his life become so confused?

Although Otto Taussig gives a thoroughly competent performance as the aging and befuddled Max Kohn, Schutte fails to keep the plot coherent and on track. Rhea Perlman, Barbara Hershey, Elizabeth Pena and Tovah Feldshuh have strong cameos as the female lovers/demons adding to Kohn's confusion. However, Kohn's bewildered state doesn't provide the dramatic glue to hold this vehicle together, leaving this viewer wondering if these three short stories might have been better left untangled on the printed page, in the medium for which they were originally created.

During June's Frameline 32 film festival, I was deeply touched by Ferzan Ozpetek's beautiful and poignant Saturn in Opposition (2007). A chance to view his earlier Facing Windows (2003) confirms my belief that Ozpetek is not only a master storyteller, but an extremely gifted filmmaker as well. Blessed with a score by Andrea Guerra that gently supports the conflicted emotions of its principal characters, Ozpetek's film deals with a confused old man and the catalytic effect he has on the lives of two bickering young Romans who find him wandering about the eternal city, dazed and confused.

Giovanna's dreams of working in a pastry shop are certainly not being realized while she toils as a bookkeeper for a chicken processing factory. Although a loving and devoted father, Filippo has lost one job after another. The young couple is obviously going through stressful times, with husband and wife working different shifts while trying to raise two young children. Meanwhile, a shy, handsome banker living in the flat across the street has been nurturing a voyeuristic crush on Giovanna.

The winner of four Donatello awards, Facing Windows unravels the unexpected key to a long lost love story as a series of flashbacks and memory lapses help Giovanna and Filippo discover the identity of their mysterious stranger. Clues about the stranger's past slowly emerge until he is finally revealed to be Davide Veroli -- a Jewish pastry-maker whose work was once known throughout Europe, but who is now a confused and aging survivor of a concentration camp.

In his dementia, Veroli has clung to the only name he can remember -- Simone -- which was apparently the name of his male lover (whom he lost to the Nazis while Veroli struggled to save a group of Jewish children during the roundup of Jews from Rome's ghetto on October 16, 1943 ). Meanwhile, the voyeuristic Lorenzo manages to cross paths with Giovanna while she is attempting to bring the addled Veroli to a police station.

With his usual bad timing, Lorenzo receives word that he is being transferred to a branch office on the island of Ischia. As Veroli is reunited with his family, and finds a way to mentor Giovanna in the art of making fine pastry, Giovanna and Lorenzo begin to explore their obvious sexual attraction. The film ends on a curiously introspective note as Giovanna finds a new inner strength and embarks on a voyage of self discovery.

Massimo Girotti offers a touching portrayal of the confused Simone/Davide, with the very sexy Massimo Poggio appearing as his younger counterpart. Filippo Nigro, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, and Raoul Bova bring solid characterizations of the young lovers to the screen as Filippo, Giovanna and Lorenzo. Once again, Selma Yirraz portrays a meddling neighbor (Ermine) with great gusto.

Facing Windows makes us examine the morality of our choices by slowly and meticulously allowing us to look into the hearts and souls of those most deeply affected by the results of their actions. Like Saturn in Opposition, it is a masterful piece of cinema framed by an acute sensitivity to life that provides a most satisfying experience for viewers.

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