A Poignant Italian Mystery: Facing Windows’ New Neorealism

Ferzan Ozpetek’s Facing Windows ( La Finestra di Fronte ), from a screenplay by Gianni Romoli and Mr. Ozpetek, won a fistful of richly deserved awards in Italy and elsewhere in Europe and was one of the highlights of the recently concluded Italian Film Festival here in New York. In a strange way, Facing Windows harks back to the glorious dawn of Italian Neorealism 60 years ago. And yet it is luminously contemporary in its rediscovery of a long-buried past, both personal and historical.

The first sequence of the film takes place, somewhat mystifyingly, in a bakery late at night. Two unidentified flour-encrusted bakers are seen eyeing each other warily, until one makes a break for the door and the other wrestles him to the ground; a life-and-death struggle ensues for which we’re given no explanation. The younger man-the one who was trying to escape-gets his hand on a carving knife and stabs his assailant to death. He then races into the street, headed for some unknown destination. Only near the end of the film will this mysterious episode (set, significantly, in 1943) be fully explained.

In the meantime, the plot shifts 60 years forward in time-from 1943 to 2003-but the setting remains the same: a working-class neighborhood in which the murder took place. Without any warning, we’re thrust into the midst of a bickering married couple. Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a young wife and mother of two, has become dissatisfied with the life that her husband, Filippo (Filippo Nigro), has provided for her. Filippo, a good-natured loser type, has been reduced to working the low-paying night shift at a chicken factory, where Giovanna works in a better-paying job as an accountant; she also adds to her bread-winning income by moonlighting as a baker of pastries and desserts for a local pub.

One day, while Giovanna and Filippo are walking their quarrelsome way to their car, they notice an old man (Massimo Girotti), who seems confused and disoriented. Giovanna urges Filippo to walk away from the elderly stranger, but Filippo insists on taking the possibly deranged man home until he can find time to take the man to a police station. In the days that follow, Filippo finds one excuse after another for not leaving the stranger in police custody. The only name the old man mentions is “Simone,” and Giovanna and Filippo decide that this must be his real name, but the police don’t have any “Simone” on their missing-person lists.

Finally, Giovanna decides to take matters into her own hands by escorting the strangely aloof and clearly disturbed stranger to the police station herself after she’s delivered her day’s pastries and desserts. While dropping her wares off at the pub, she’s approached by Lorenzo (Raoul Bova), the handsome young bachelor who lives in the flat opposite hers and shares one of the facing windows-through which, we learn later, he has been covertly admiring Giovanna, just as she has been indulging her own romantic fantasies via her own window. On this occasion, Lorenzo informs Giovanna that the elderly man, talking and behaving strangely, has gotten out of her car and taken off.

Together, Giovanna and Lorenzo set out to track down the stranger, and, if possible, solve his mystery. By this time, Giovanna is more curious about the stranger-particularly after she realizes from some of his criticism of her pastries and desserts that he had once been a baker. As she begins to connect the dots, following a straight line back to the Holocaust and the stranger’s tangled gay past, Giovanna starts to follow a parallel path to that of the mysterious stranger. Like him, Giovanna is forced to make a difficult choice between possible destinies, and what she decides will not leave her free of guilt and regret. The last shots of the film close in on her luminous eyes, capping a performance that I strongly doubt will be equaled by any other actress this year, from any country.

Mr. Bova’s Lorenzo and Mr. Nigro’s Filippo are admirably supportive characterizations to Ms. Mezzogiorno’s mesmerizing Giovanna; but more than a footnote should be devoted to Massimo Girotti (1918-2003), who died before he could see himself on the screen in Facing Windows . Girotti, who plays the mysterious stranger, was a polo and swimming champion in his youth and contributed to the birth of Neorealism in Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), an unauthorized adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (a casual act of piracy that kept it off American screens for decades). Marlon Brando teased Girotti in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) for keeping his fabled hunky good looks into his 50′s and asked him his secret. As Girotti chinned himself on an exercise bar in response, he observed modestly that he hadn’t been as good-looking in his youth “as you, Marlon.”

Jesus High

Brian Dannelly’s Saved! , from a screenplay by Mr. Dannelly and Michael Urban, starts out well as a satiric spoof of Jesus freaks, but after two comically inventive scenes, it quickly turns soft and flat. What we get instead is yet another sermon on tolerance, inclusion and political correctness under the benign gaze of an approving Jesus that makes the much funnier and savage Mean Girls look Brechtian by comparison.

It’s a shame, really, because the young people in Saved! are all talented and engaging, and the two good scenes I mentioned are worth anthologizing in a series called “Great Moments in Bad Movies.” The first coup is executed when Mary (Jena Malone) and Dean (Chad Faust), two students at American Eagle Christian High, are in the middle of a swimming date at a deserted pool. The teenagers have improvised a game in which they go underwater to talk about their feelings. Dean uses the occasion to blurt out, “I think I’m gay.” Mary responds hysterically in a shocked, squashed, drowning voice: “WHAT!” Before she can return to the surface, she bangs her head on a pool fixture, precipitating a woozy vision of Jesus-actually the pool attendant-swimming to her rescue and imploring Mary to “save” Dean from his sinful tendency by having sex with him.

The underwater effects transform what would’ve been an awkward and unpleasant situation above water into a startlingly funny tour de force. The second and last funny scene takes place at a firing range where Jesus’ self-appointed queen bee, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), instructs Mary in the finer points of target shooting to defend her virginity against the onslaughts of lecherous males.

But it’s too late. Mary has already sacrificed her virginity to “save” Dean, who’s turned out of his house after his folks find a copy of Honcho magazine under his bed. His parents then commit him to a weird religious reformatory dedicated to turning gay boys straight.

From that point, the coyly named Mary drifts apart from the Jesus freaks, though eventually identifying herself with Mary, the Mother of God. In her rebellion, Mary makes common cause with a band of self-driven outcasts, led by the irreverent Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the only Jewish student in the school; her boyfriend, the wheelchair-bound Roland (Macaulay Culkin)-he’s Hilary Faye’s brother, and disapproves of his sister’s hypocrisy; and Mary’s steadfast suitor, Patrick (Patrick Fugit), who woos Mary even after he learns that she’s going to have Dean’s baby. Everything is resolved very neatly after Hilary Faye is exposed as a cheat and a fraud, and Dean finds the male lover of his dreams in the supposed correctional institution.

And oh, yes-there’s an on-again, off-again romance between Patrick’s hip rock-star Jesus-freak father, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan) and Mary’s Christian-style-exterior-decorator mom, Lillian (Mary Louise Parker). There’s even a quasi-feminist note injected into the final drama-Mary gives birth to a universally beloved daughter. Still, Saved! -which was shot mostly in British Columbia with non-Hollywood-studio financing-can hardly serve as a sign post on how far “Hollywood” has come in dealing with controversial subjects.

Visa Trouble

Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal asks us to imagine that a fictional character named Viktor Navorski, a visitor from the imaginary Eastern European country of Krakozhia-just a stone’s throw from the Marx Brothers’ Freedonia in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933)-would find himself confined for weeks and months in an airport’s “international lounge” (made to look like J.F.K. airport) because of a bureaucratic wrangle after his country’s government is overthrown.

With superstar Tom Hanks playing Navorski, we’re back in the Robinson Crusoe world of Robert Zemekis’ Cast Away (2000), except that this time Mr. Hanks displays even greater imaginative survival skills-more so than one would expect from a Balkan provincial who speaks just a few words of English. Not to worry: Navorski picks up the lingo as he goes along, to the point that he’s able to converse about the historical works devoted to Napoleon with an erudite airline stewardess played by a curiously subdued and subordinated Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her character ruefully confesses that she is all of 29 years old (gasp! shriek!), having been strung along by a married man for years and years. I find this a bizarre piece of dialogue to attribute to any woman, much less to the supposed love interest of a male superstar. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), Navorski doesn’t get the girl: She goes off with the married man after she uses her boyfriend’s “Washington connections” to give Navorski a break with the airport officials.

Actually, the closest thing Mr. Hanks has to a co-star in the film is Stanley Tucci, who plays airport big wheel Frank Dixon, Navorski’s implacable nemesis. But Navorski is far from friendless in his travails with the authorities. He gradually gathers around him a convoy of cutesy “little people with big dreams” working in humble capacities around the terminal. There’s baggage handler Joe Mulroy (Chi McBride), who leads the group through sheer height and bulk; airport food clerk Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna); and the one-man cleaning crew Gupta (Kumar Pallana), who’s plagued by paranoid fantasies that Navorski is a secret agent. Navorski is grateful for his newfound allies, to the point of promoting a proxy romance between Enrique and immigration clerk Dolores Torres (Zoë Saldana). I was somewhat let down when I found out why Navorski had visited our fair shores in the first place; in fact, I was disappointed by the whole movie, which seemed much more promising in the coming attractions. The concept was there; the production abilities were there. It’s the execution that fell apart.

A Few Words on Saint Ronnie

No one asked me my opinion of the impending canonization of the late Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), but here it is anyway. Reagan during his Presidency was a Scrooge with a smile as he showed us how we could sleep comfortably while the children of the poor went to bed hungry. Even with that, however, he was a flaming liberal next to George W. Bush. If that isn’t damning with faint praise, I don’t know what is.