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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Via Appia': Provocative, Disturbing

August 23, 1991|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With "Via Appia" (at the Nuart) German filmmaker Jochen Hick, in his feature debut, has made a provocative, disturbing and altogether challenging and distinctive film from the most deceptively simple of premises. Frank (Peter Senner), a young Lufthansa flight attendant with AIDS, flies from Hamburg to Rio de Janeiro in search of a hustler named Mario, who may have infected him with the virus. Accompanying him on the journey is a filmmaker (Yves Jansen) making a documentary on Frank's odyssey for German television.

Shot cinema verite style in appropriately gritty 16-millimeter, "Via Appia" is sufficiently complex--and elliptical in style--that subtitles do not always convey essential information. It is crucial, for example, to understand from the outset that Frank is seeking out Mario in particular because the youth, in the course of a one-night stand, scrawled on a mirror in English: "Welcome to the AIDS Club."

Frank apparently believes that encountering Mario again will somehow make death more tangible. He doesn't want pity, but he's in no way extraordinary, which is why this scrupulously honest film is so refreshing and has such impact. (Originally commissioned by German TV's Second Channel, the film was held up for airing for almost a year because of its bluntness.)

Frank's decidedly condescending view of the hustlers who presumably have given him pleasure provides an ironic frame for the film's essentially tragic view of Rio's seedy, shadowy, highly dangerous sexual underworld, centered in an area known as Via Appia, where men and boys blatantly offer themselves for sale.

Like a number of film odysseys--Antonioni's "L'Avventura" in particular--Frank's quest begins to lose momentum toward its stated goal. Early on, Frank links up with Jose (Guilherme de Padua), a handsome, vain hustler who strings Frank along with the glib assurance that he will be able to locate Mario for him. Since Senner and Jansen (whose filmmaker becomes increasingly disenchanted) are required to give largely--and very fine--interior performances, it is De Padua, an ex-hustler turned actor, who gives the film its vitality.

As a film dealing with AIDS and homosexuality, "Via Appia" (Times-rated Mature for considerable nudity, some sex, adult themes) eschews nobility and sentimentality to strive for an unflinching, although deeply compassionate, sense of reality.

'Via Appia'

Peter Senner: Frank

Guilherme de Padua: Jose

Yves Jansen: The Director

Margaret Schmidt: Lucia

A Strand Releasing International presentation. Writer-director Jochen Hick. Producer Norbert Friedlander. Cinematographer Peter Christian Neumann. Editor Claudia Vogeler. Music Charly Schoppner. Sound design Marc van der Willigen. In German, Portuguese and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (considerable nudity, some sex, adult themes).

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