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June 30, 2003 2:00 AM
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Seeing the Mother from Hell Through "Lesbian Eyeglasses"; Monica Strambini's "Gasoline"

Seeing the Mother from Hell Through "Lesbian Eyeglasses"; Monica Strambini's "Gasoline"

by Amy Biancolli










Regina Orioli in Monica Strambini's "Gasoline"

It's just not Lenni's day. First her scathing, stiletto-shod madre pops in at the gas station slash-coffee-bar that Lenni (Regina Orioli) runs with her lover, Stella (Maya Sansa). This, ahem, awkward visit prompts a nasty argument, after which said mama cuffs Lenni on the ear ("You see? You make me act like a fucked-up mother!"). She then insults her daughter's choice of eyewear ("those lesbian eyeglasses") and not-so-subtly compares paramour Stella to a pile of feces.

At which point, and quite understandably, Stella smacks la madre in the jaw. La madre, who is played by Mariella Valentini but is given no other name in the credits, reels head-first into the coffee bar and collapses dead on the floor. The three of them lie there in a stunned embrace; Lenni tastes her mother's blood, which has mixed with an upended bowl of sugar. Shortly thereafter the old dame chimes in. "Look at me!" implores la madre, in a voice only Lenni (and we) can hear. Lenni, freaking, yells for an ambulance. La madre helpfully corrects her: "It looks like I'm already dead."

But wait. There's more. The talking dead matriarch is just the beginning. It seems Lenni has 20 million Lire in cash. It seems Stella has no interest in calling the police. It seems a good idea to make a run for Tunisia, considering the body in the trunk of their Volvo and the obnoxious hetero threesome who just made a run on their gas station. La madre ends up in a trash heap, prompting Lenni's filial anguish and this tart parental response: "Does the idea of burying me in a garbage dump scare you? What do you want, some maternal advice?"

So it goes in "Gasoline" ("Benzina"), Monica Strambini's mordant, spasmodically imaginative, finally unsatisfying movie about matricidal lovers and the mother from hell who plagues us all. The film, of course, concerns Lenni's relationship with her own mother -- a relationship only fully realized in death -- but no one in this cutting nocturnal tale is exactly happy with Mom. Stella, for one, refuses to tell Lenni her owner mother's name ("it's not important") and prefers to picture her as seminal East German punk diva Nina Hagen. "The great thing about not having a mother," she explains, "is that you can imagine her anyway you like."

If all of this navel-gazing sounds just a tad too Oprah-esque for European lesbian cinema, never fear: in a sparse 85 minutes, "Gasoline" manages to cram in enough tough-chick road-movie conventions to satisfy the worst (and I do mean worst) cravings of the most hopeless (and I do mean hopeless) "Thelma & Louise" devotee. This is perhaps an unfair comparison, as neither Thelma nor Louise kills the other's mawmaw, and no one, so far as I remember, provides sardonic play-by-play commentary from the next world. That the subgenre's already been beaten to a pulp was clear enough from Virginie Despentes' "Baise-moi," which managed to make serial killing and hardcore genital-on-genital intercourse about as entertaining as a pap smear.

"Gasoline" is much milder poison -- Lenni and Stella are more human, less sure of their goals and more tender in their lovemaking. They are, however, fugitive babes. So there's a road trip. There's a car chase. There's a stupefyingly lazy deus-ex-machina ending. There's a corpse or two, and loose cash, and waterin' holes, and the inevitable scuzz-head men. In this case the scuzz-heads are two-thirds of the aforementioned obnoxious threesome, who start out trying to buy petrol from the gals but wind up trying to rape them.

You can tell from the start these guys are no good; one of them wears little white disco pants of the sort that only vacationing golfers and cute Italian reprobates can safely get away with. They're in the film (the men, not the pants) for no particular reason except to give the heroines cause to drive fast and point a gun at stupid people in bathrooms. In this manner they provide a neat counterpoint to the movie's other prominent male, a cynical priest on a Vespa (Luigi Maria Burruano) who makes dour poetic pronouncements on the futility of eros ("earthly love brings only sacrifice and suffering").

The episode with the priest -- the women accidentally wreck his scooter then give him a ride -- is one of the movie's few genuine charms, another example of the dark wit and unexpected tenderness that infuse Lenni's repartee with the dead madre. The value of these small exchanges, aside from their humor, is the way they deepen and humanize an otherwise terminally conventional story. Whether Lenni conjures her mother's voice in her mind or hears it speaking from the ether, the words carry the weight of truth. "You're the most beautiful thing I have," her mama says, and the shock of this sentiment strikes Lenni -- and us -- like a fist.

If only Strambini's film had more of this stuff -- not just the dead mothers and depressive clerics, but the lyrical and epiphanic writing. Too many conceits are hackneyed. Too many gimmicks are cheap. Orioli is terrific as the mouse-of-steel Lenni, and her scenes with Valentini (dead or alive) evoke real heartache, but beyond that, the cast doesn't have much to work with in the way of raw material. Half the blame lands on Strambini's haphazard direction, half on a screenplay (by Strambini, AnneRitte Ciccone, and Elena Stancanelli, who wrote the novel) that's too often affectless and slack. For all the surprises lurking in Lenni's haunted discourse with her mother, there's a whopper of a cliché waiting just around the bend. And for that, unfortunately, we can't blame Mom.

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