Great Gazzara!

palladin credit santiago Great Gazzara! Looking for Palladin
Running time 115 minutes
Written and directed by Andrzej Krakowski
Starring  Ben Gazzara, Talia Shire, David Moscow, Pedro Armendáriz Jr.

Looking for Palladin is a small movie with a big, big actor. In a gargantuan starring role, Ben Gazzara proves once again why he’s endured as one of the screen’s most popular and powerful performers for more years than the snow on top of his head gives away. After countless films, he has, at 79, forgotten nothing about how to grab you by the throat and hold you there until you cry uncle. And you are always, gratefully, better off for it.

Written and directed by Poland’s Andrzej Krakowski, Looking for Palladin is the first movie filmed in Guatemala by an outsider since Tarzan and the Green Goddess with Bruce Bennett in 1938. Need I remind you it is a vast improvement from nose to knee?

Mr. Gazzara plays Jack Palladin, an aging two-time Oscar winner who gave up acting eons ago, vanished from the movie business and settled in a quaint, dusty little colonial village named Antigua that doesn’t stand out on the tourist maps and where autograph hunters are rare as pink alligators. His life is pleasant, cloudless and so devoid of stress that he just might live forever. For companionship, he shares an elegant house with a waitress who loves him (Talia Shire). For kicks, he’s a cook at the Café Viejo, a local restaurant. And for peace, he’s got a new definition of retirement. Until, that is, his oasis is invaded by an arrogant, obnoxious, lower-rung Hollywood talent agent named Josh Ross (David Moscow), dispatched to Guatemala to find the reclusive actor and offer him a one-million-dollar cameo in a remake of one of his most famous films, to be shot on location in Italy. A brash, rude Hollywood import in imitation Gucci loafers and a lot of attitude is hard to overlook in a sleepy hamlet like Antigua, and for the first part of the movie the locals do their best to degrade and detour the guy, especially in all of Palladin’s local haunts, where he’s protected by a gang of pals, including the chief of police (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.), the shoeshine boy, the waiters and a group of American expatriate filmmakers who are planning a film of their own with Palladin as the star. Ross is too young to remember many of the classics in Palladin’s golden years, and he doesn’t even know what the actor looks like—a real disadvantage when he sometimes stands next to him in the same room without even knowing it. Two other obstacles to the kid’s success: Palladin was once married to his actress mother, which makes him the old ham’s reluctant stepson, and he’s oblivious to the fact that Palladin doesn’t want a comeback, even for a million dollars, a healthy per diem and four first-class plane tickets to Rome.

The movie takes a long time to make you sort out all of these people—and care. When the unlikely father and stepson finally connect, the movie turns slightly sticky with lumpy revelations and uncomfortable insights. But the acting is uniformly superb, like a reunion of cowboy actors at a dude-ranch barbecue. The cinematography beautifully captures the dramatic hues of the gorgeous textiles, shifting moods and architectural splendors of Guatemala, which is neither South America nor Mexico, but a magical combination of both, with azure skies and buildings of saffron yellow and chili-pepper red paint. Some of the writing is excellent; the scene in which Palladin relives the night his wife (and the boy’s self-centered, indifferent mother) died in his arms is as good a description of love and death as I’ve ever heard onscreen. Looking for Palladin has truthfulness on its side, as well as a major asset most films would throw in half of their European distribution royalties for—and I do mean Mr. Gazzara. As Jack Palladin, a dinosaur from another era preserved in art cinemas and on TCM, he’s half–Father Christmas and half–Walter Brennan. This may be a small movie, but it hands Mr. Gazzara a role that gives him plenty of room to live up to his reputation as a genuine movie icon. Warm, versatile, big-hearted, he’s an actor who acts with his arms wide open.