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Imitation of Life

Giuseppe Tornatore's reputation on this side of the Atlantic rests on the 1989 Academy Award winner Cinema Paradiso, his engaging but sticky-sweet valentine to movie memory. That nostalgic box-office success sought to recapture a bygone filmmaking style, and it endorsed the prevailing American view of Italians as mushy sentimentalists who don't know which end of the rifle the little meatball comes out.

Tornatore lays on his noble peasant fantasy even thicker in The Star Maker, which has also gotten an Oscar nod and which tries even harder to ape the grittiness of the great neorealist filmmakers who emerged in Italy after World War II. Tornatore has gone to the extreme of recruiting non-actors in the streets--a bid for authenticity that worked beautifully for artistic revolutionists like DeSica and Rossellini in the Forties but looks patently phony in 1996. In almost every way, Tornatore's "homage" descends unwittingly into falsehood: The Star Maker is to the The Bicycle Thief as the cardboard Gucci knockoff is to the Gucci.

Tornatore and his co-writer, Fabio Rinaudo, have cooked up a plot about a petty con man who calls himself Joe Morelli (Sergio Castellitto) and who drives his little loudspeaker truck from village to sunny village in postwar Sicily, posing as a talent scout for a Rome movie studio. Joe's "screen tests" cost the invariably poor, invariably scenic, invariably romanticized rustics 1,500 lire apiece. While the movie plays coy with us for a reel or so in regard to Joe's legitimacy, you sense from the start that there's no film in his camera and no studio job on his resume. He's simply trampling desperate dreams of stardom and escape to fill his pockets and to bed the occasional backstage mother.

The film's primary conceit goes farther than that: Tornatore is convinced that people will confess things to a camera that they would never tell anyone else. Operating on that theory, he stuffs the movie full of mute old soldiers who speak of their tragedies for the first time, shepherds rhapsodizing about the stars, poetic cops who recite Dante, even gun-toting killers who suddenly melt at the prospect of one day seeing their names on a marquee. Even less convincing, Tornatore throws in a doomed romance between Joe and an innocent country girl, played by a ravishing newcomer named Tiziana Lodato. This is meant to be his tragedy and his redemption, but it comes off as a clunky plot device.

Each of these melodramas is calculated to reveal the charm and warmth of the Italian soul and the boundless magic of il cinema, but Tornatore's neo-neorealism still feels synthetic, self-conscious and self-serving--qualities that are nowhere evident in his models, from Open City to Shoeshine. And whenever he injects a grotesque detail--like the con man getting taken down by more skilled scammers--he's not very good at imitating Fellini, either. Tornatore's landed a big international audience, and he might win another Oscar come Monday night, but his kind of reheated sentiment ain't the real thing. As Hemingway once said, you can imitate a style, but not the mind that made the style. Long live Vittorio DeSica.--Gallo

The Star Maker
Screenplay by Giuseppe Tornatore and Fabio Rinaudo. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. With Sergio Castellitto, Tiziana Lodato, Franco Scaldati and Leopold Trieste.

 
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