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FILM : Muddled Plot a Minor Tragedy of 1981's 'Ridiculous Man'

March 19, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

The plot of Bernardo Bertolucci's "Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man" revolves around terrorism: The son of a wealthy Italian is kidnaped by revolutionaries who demand money for their cause.

From there, Bertolucci unfolds a fairly complicated plot designed to raise contemporary questions about the nature of terrorism (the period is the '70s, a time when the violent Red Brigade was active in Bertolucci's native Italy) while also burrowing into the relationship between a husband and wife, their son and the life they've built. Bertolucci's ambitious goal is a "thriller" with brains.

Unfortunately, "Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man," screening Friday night as the latest offering in Golden West College's "International Films" series, is an often muddled movie that lurches as it tries to combine these elements. There's frustration in both style and story; Bertolucci is uncharacteristically bloodless here and, as for plotting, we're never quite sure what the son's involvement is in the kidnaping.

There's a veil of confusion to the 1981 film, which contrasts with Bertolucci's best works, such as the erotic "Last Tango in Paris" (1972) and the earlier "The Conformist" (1970).

Maybe it's the subject matter that threw him off. Terrorism has proven an elusive target for many filmmakers, and even the very good efforts (Rainer Werner Fassbiner's "The Third Generation" and Claude Chabrol's "The Nada Gang," to name two) have ultimately been unsatisfying. Like them, Bertolucci has difficulty putting a "face" on terrorism and the toll it takes on average people.

The film does pick up, at least as a psychological peek at the two parents, when Bertolucci centers on them by raising their business to metaphor. Primo (Ugo Tognazzi) and Barbara (Anouk Aimee) look upon their cheese and sausage manufacturing empire as, as one critic put it, "a fetish." It represents the only real monument to their lives, even more than their kidnaped son, Giovanni (Ricardo Tognazzi).

With all the cheeses stacked in opulent rows, cinematographer Carlo Di Palma gives the warehouse the look of a personal treasure trove. Primo and Barbara relish their surroundings and are devastated when they learn that this appearance of wealth does not translate into the ready cash needed to pay Giovanni's ransom.

Primo then becomes the most compelling character, arguing with Fate for placing him in this predicament. The irony of it slaps him in the face as he dwells on his own politics, which he considers leftist. He never does get what's going on, that things are happening beyond his control because having control over one's life is an illusion--that's the tragedy of this ridiculous man.

"Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man" is also interesting on a technical level because it represents a departure from Bertolucci's customary approach. This is one of his sparest-looking movies, very different from the more visually lush films of earlier days. Too bad it also lacks their precision and passion.

What: Bernardo Bertolucci's "Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man."

When: Friday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Golden West College's Forum II theater, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Golden West Street and head south to the campus.

Wherewithal: $3 and $3.50.

Where to Call: (714) 891-3991.

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