BERLIN 2001 REVIEW: Secrets and Lies; Italy's Comic Melodrama of "Ignorant Fairies"
by Eddie Cockrell
(indieWIRE/02.12.01) -- "You were never very curious about life," Italian mother Veronica gently chides her daughter Antonia (Margherita Buy), newly-widowed after Massimo (Andrea Renzi), her loving husband of 15 years, is killed in a horrible pedestrian traffic accident. Yet Antonia is about to become drawn into a world from which she had been completely isolated, as the chance discovery and eventual meeting of her late husband's clandestine, apparently long-time lover (warning: spoiler below) leads her from their peaceful upper-class Rome suburb to the close-knit Ostiense district of the city and an eccentric but warm-hearted extended family at first suspicious, but then supportive of her quest for understanding.
For Massimo's secret soul mate of seven years turns out to be Michele (Stefano Accorsi), a sloe-eyed hunk who works at the all-night General Markets and shares a huge rooftop apartment with a sizeable and diverse number of local denizens. There's Serra (Serra Yilmaz), the diminutive Turkish immigrant dynamo with an opinion on everything but a yearning for security; hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Luisella (Rosaria de Cicco); Mara (Lucrezia Valia), whose transgender procedure has produced a strikingly tall woman; inseparable lovers Riccardo (Filippo Nigro) and Luciano (Ivan Bacchi) -- nicknamed Tweedledum and Tweedledee by Serra; Ernesto, who is sick with the AIDS virus; and a handful of others. Cutting across accepted boundaries of sexual orientation, age, race and social class, these friends have turned societal liabilities into interpersonal strengths.
At first reluctant to reveal the truth to the astonished Antonia (which Buy plays with a regally precise yet appealing focus), the household grows to tolerate and then accept her routine visits. While grappling with the openness and warmth she begins to suspect she never really had with the seemingly devoted Massimo, Antonia is nevertheless reluctant to tell her cynical mother the truth about her late husband's lover. And her stormy yet progressively more tolerant relationship with Michele -- they did, after all, love the same man -- seems to be as much a source of fascination than comfort to each of them. It isn't until the arrival of Serra's brother Emir (Koray Candemir) that Antonia once again locates the strength within herself to move on the next phase of her life.
On the heels of his elegant 1999 period drama "Harem Suare" and well-received 1997 feature debut "The Turkish Bath," the Italian/French coproduction "Ignorant Fairies" finds 42-year-old Istanbul-born and Rome-based director Ferzan Ozpetek trying his hand at contemporary modern melodrama with a comedic strain that emerges late in the overly-generous 105-minute running time.
Filming in and around the district he's called home for over 25 years, Ozpetek captures the same kind of sexual politics and regional flavor that made "Strawberry and Chocolate" such an eye-opening treat (the set designer/decorator was Bruno Cesari, who won an Oscar for "The Last Emperor" and a nomination for "The Talented Mr. Ripley"). Says the director: "My first film was an attempt to rediscover my Turkish roots through my new Italian eye. The second was an investigation into why I broke away from my roots and went -- almost like a sentimental exile -- to search for another culture, and found it in Italy."
The energizing dramatic metaphor of the film is the painting of the title, on the back of which Antonia discovers a line from the poetry of Nazim Hikmet and the cryptic titular inscription. In one of the film's many subtle reinforcements of the capricious nature of love, Michele reveals that he and Massimo met over the last copy of the Hikmet's work in stock at a local bookstore -- to which Antonia responds that Massimo had never heard of the poet; the book had been a present for her. Without painting the now-dead Massimo in a negative light, Ozpetek equates his duplicity as a generous capacity for love that enhanced both of his lives while minimizing the deceit -- if not the pain he left in his wake.
"It doesn't matter where he's from, just how he looks," someone advises, explaining the apparent guidelines for inclusion in Michele's extended Ostiense family. For Ferzan Ozpetek, the road from Istanbul to Rome may have been long and difficult, but the welcoming arms at the end of his journey (make sure to stick around for the joyous outtakes and production footage over the closing credits) seem to have provided him with a secure and loving home. Blessed with a curiosity for, and love of, the world around him, Ozpetek clearly wishes the same happy outcome for those ignorant fairies not yet at peace with their own lives.
[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic covering the Berlin International Festival for indieWIRE, Variety and nitrateonline.com.]