In "Kaos" (Friday at the Fine Arts), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani make us feel that they have revealed the very soul of Sicily in their superb rendering of several tales by Luigi Pirandello.
The country's harshly beautiful landscape mirrors the hard life and fierce passions of Pirandello's people, yet "Kaos" is a warm and embracing experience, both amusing and rueful, its camera movement as graceful as baroque scrollwork.
The film's title, taken from the region in which Pirandello was born, is paradoxical: In portraying the emotional chaos that affects so many of Pirandello's people, the Taviani brothers and their co-adapter, the distinguished screenwriter Tonino Guerra, have created a work of rigorous artistic unity in which character and setting are one.
As a result, the film's individual vignettes are not merely episodic but add up to a vision of life and nature that's as breathtaking in its beauty as it is abundant in compassion. The Pirandello of "Kaos" is not the illustrious dramatist of neurosis and despair but the lesser-known storyteller of peasant folklore.
In collaboration not only with Guerra but also composer Nicola Piovani and cameraman Giuseppe Lanci, who contributed such glorious and stirring images and music, the Tavianis have revived the timeless pleasure of storytelling for its own sake.
The splendid Margarita Lozano, the handsome, mature matron of the Tavianis' "The Night of the Shooting Stars," is here a peasant woman nearly crazed from hearing no word from her two sons who emigrated to America 14 years earlier. As she clearly has done many times before, she approaches a small band of families in the midst of heartbreaking farewells as sons and husbands prepare to leave for the New World; surely, one of these men will carry a letter to her sons (but we know that the young woman to whom Lozano has dictated so many letters has at this point given up, simply filling up the paper with scribbles to pacify the old woman).
Surprisingly, Lozano has another son, as devoted to her as she is hateful to him, clearly wishing he didn't even exist. Why this is so is her real story. Surely, Duse herself could have been no more eloquent than Lozano in expressing the wide-ranging and conflicting emotions that beset this poor woman, who cannot forgive the loyal son for reminding her of a terrible past event for which he shares no blame.
Enrica Maria Mudugno plays an attractive peasant bride who makes the horrible discovery that when the moon is full, her husband (Claudio Bigagli) turns lunatic, baying like a wolf and requiring her to barricade herself in their rude hovel. "Moonstruck," however, is not a horror story but a parable of extraordinary empathy: The husband, helpless in the grip of his disease, laments the terror to which he subjects his wife; her would-be lover (Massimo Bonetti) is likewise deeply affected by the husband's hideous curse.
For a change of pace, the Tavianis--in "The Jar"--turn to the comic predicament of a tyrannical olive grower (Ciccio Ingrassia), skinny as Ichabod Crane, who has hired a humpbacked man (Franco Franchi) to repair a huge, cracked terra-cotta jar for olive oil, only to find that Franchi unthinkingly has trapped himself inside it. What to do? Who's to pay if the jar is cracked open again to get him out? It's a nifty little moral on the perils of pride and greed that gives this veteran team of comedians quite possibly the best material of their careers. But it's more than that: It's a lovely celebration of life, as Franchi turns his incarceration into a festive occasion, rallying Ingrassia's downtrodden peasants. And then there's Ingrassia's passing comment on his awareness of his mortality that allows this vignette to transcend itself.
Even more sly is "Requiem," about how the patriarch (Salvatore Rossi) of a community of shepherds manages to secure a burial ground for his people despite the wishes of the local baron (Pasquale Spadola), who feels that since he's allowed the shepherds to settle on a mountainous corner of his vast holdings, they shouldn't expect to establish a cemetery there as well.
The Tavianis have saved the best for the last, in an epilogue in which Omerto Antonutti, who had the title role in "Padre Padrone" and was Lozano's humble suitor in "The Night of the Shooting Stars," plays Pirandello himself as an aging man who feels summoned to his ancestral mansion in Sicily for an imaginary, consoling conversation with his dead mother (the exquisite Regina Bianchi), who advises her son to meet life with an open palm instead of a closed fist.
Once again he imagines her telling of an incident in her childhood, one of those perfect moments of happiness that make life worth living, a respite on the beach during which she and her brothers and sisters slid down a sandy slope into the most perfectly turquoise sea you have ever seen. "Kaos" (rated R for adult themes), which began with the tormented mother of Lozano, ends with the calm, loving mother of Bianchi. It is perhaps not too much to suppose that together these women are meant to represent Sicily itself, in all its joys and sorrows.