Disco, flying saucers, long-haired Sheriffs who speak in the lilting accents of American southerners on Italian beaches. You can’t fault director Davide Manuli for trying. He throws everything at the wall that is his update of “The Legend of Kaspar Hauser” and if only a tiny fraction of its sticks than so be it. I admire him for trying. Not that there’s much else to admire.
It’s hard to know who’s responsible when a film goes as deeply, terribly wrong as this one. Based on the German urban legend of sorts about a teenage boy that appeared in the streets of Nuremberg in the 1820s and was quickly taken to be of royal lineage despite the fact that he claimed to have been isolated in a darkened cell for much of his development, it is the scandal of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it had its world premiere this week.
Shot in handsome black and white on the beaches of Sardinia, Manuli’s film features perhaps the mostly deeply unhinged performance of Vincent Gallo’s increasingly strange career as a film actor. Or shall I say pair of performances, as the always caustic actor, director, writer, musician, provocateur stars as both as the aforementioned English speaking long-haired Sheriff (perhaps the films most sympathetic character, although using that adjective is a stretch) and the Italian speaking, white jump suit wearing, motorcycle riding assassin sent to dispose of Mr. Hauser.
The Sheriff initially finds Hauser washed up to sea on some oblong Italian beach and takes him in after carrying his limp form — which is emblazoned with “Kaspar Hauser” on his pale chest — back to his compound, where he locks Hauser in a cage, teaches him how to ride donkeys and generally showers him with something resembling compassion. Although in a story this oblique and uninterested in real or even thoughtfully abstracted human consequences, what does compassion even mean?
Manuli allowed his actors to improvise much of the dialogue, but rarely has so little form been employed by a director using that technique; at times the text feels like a parody of Thomas Pynchon as written by a stoned Italian high school student who has been the better part of his senior year watching “Gummo.”
Silvio Calderoni, who plays the bleached blonde title character, seems at a loss as to what to do with the material (or lack thereof), but he has a spastic energy that the film, had it been at once more rigorous, serious (with a small S) and thoughtfully comic, could have more effectively tapped into.
Shot in the longish takes that signify Serious Cinema to citizens of festival-circuit-land, the movie is a pop bonanza; I almost wish it had been direct by Madonna, but perhaps even she couldn’t have outdone Manuli in the garish pretension and perfume ad aesthetics categories. Still, its almost worth the watch just for the terrific score by French house music star Vitalic and as a reminded of just how good the Werner Herzog version of this same story truly is. [D+]