REVIEW: Turturro's "Illuminata" Shines Too Late
by Danny Lorber
John Turturro's second feature is an often lyrical and ambitious work, yet it doesn't live up to the artistic goals it sets up for itself. The first film Turturro made, the underrated "Mac" (1992), documented and dramatized the daily life of a working-class family with a love and lack of condescension that is unfortunately all too rare in American-made movies. Unsurprisingly, it disappeared without a trace. He's had nearly as much trouble getting his second film, "Illuminata" off the ground.It was originally screened some fifteen months ago at the 1998 Cannes festival, and is only now getting its U.S. release.
The sumptuously designed film is positively besotted with movement. Set in the late 19th century -- though I couldn't for the life of me figure out where at first (always a bad sign) -- it follows the love lives and other shenanigans of a large theater troupe, in the proud ensemble tradition of the French classic "Children of Paradise." It's heartfelt and often quite charmingly funny, but way too busy for its own good.
John Turturro plays Tuccio, a headstrong playwright struggling against multiple odds to realize his vision on the stage. Turturro's real-life wife Katherine Borowitz is Rachel, the troupe's leading lady, who is also Tuccio's lover. (Even their young son Amedeo Turturro has a small role.) Especially in its first half, "Illuminata" is noisy and overwrought in the way that so frequently occurs with films about the theater. These films so often seem to occupy an impossibly self-defensive and self-defeating position about the theatrical world, always obsessively bent on winning us over to the wonders of the theater, yet always, of course, remaining trapped in a film.
Turturro's vigorous script (based on the play by Brandon Cole) does provide for a couple of delicious roles for Susan Sarandon as an aging diva and Christopher Walken as a imperious theater critic who's also a raging queen, but it seems ultimately to head off in too many directions at once, thus diminishing its total effect. Other worthies like British heartthrob Rufus Sewell, the multiply talented Bill Irwin (the Muppets' Mr. Noodle, "Fool Moon"), the recently-deceased Donal McCann (Phineas Finn on Masterpiece Theatre's "The Pallisers"), and American vet Ben Gazzara (who seems to be everywhere these days) round out the solid cast.
In its last half hour, "Illuminata" opts for quiet poetry rather than boisterous rhetoric, and becomes much more winning in the process. By then, however, it's just a little too late.