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Movie Review

The Play's the Thing

John Turturro's 'Illuminata' employs a formidable cast in an engaging and finely realized look at life in the theater.


John Turturro's "Illuminata," a rhapsodic celebration of love and life in the theater, is about as close to an all-out art film in the grand traditional manner as an American movie ever gets, recalling such films as Max Ophuls' "La Ronde" and Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night."

According to Turturro, who with Brandon Cole adapted Cole's play for the screen, he was influenced by Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game" and also took inspiration from Georges Feydeau's farces and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's "Red Shoes." All this should tell you that you're in for something out of the ordinary, something that those unwilling to go along with this heady treat might well dismiss as "arty." Ironically, were "Illuminata" either an Italian or French film, it might be an easier sell.

Set in 1905 Manhattan, it has as its principal setting a charming, old-fashioned theater with a very high proscenium flanked by tiers of box seats that is owned by Astergourd (Beverly D'Angelo) and her husband Pallenchio (the late Donal McCann). Currently in residence is an acting company drawing upon much immigrant talent arriving in the city in that era and headed by the incandescent Rachel (Katherine Borowitz), a Pre-Raphaelite beauty and consummate actress. (It may be no accident that Rachel is the name of the sublime French actress heralded across Europe a generation before Sarah Bernhardt.)

The troupe is performing "Cavalleria Rusticana," until an illness fells one of the actors. Turturro's Tuccio, a talented but still struggling playwright and Rachel's lover, doesn't hesitate to step forward in front of the footlights and announce that the play he wrote for Rachel, "Illuminata," will be presented at the theater the very next night. After such a public announcement, Astergourd, who has been stalling Tuccio, has little choice but to comply.

When "Illuminata," a play about infidelity and forgiveness espousing the value of imperfect love as all that mere humans are capable of, goes on the next night, it sets off a chain of Feydeau-like complications. The all-powerful critic Bevalaqua (Christopher Walken), who comes across as a hilariously burlesqued Oscar Wilde, hates the play but is smitten with Marco (Bill Irwin), cast as a Harlequin-like figure.

Now if Marco could be persuaded to accept Bevalaqua's fevered invitation to come over for a visit at his exotic digs, and be prepared to give at least hope to the critic that he might succumb to the love that dare not speak its name, well maybe "Illuminata" could be resuscitated.

Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon's Mme. Celimene, an international stage legend of a certain age with the bravura manner of a Bernhardt, wants "Illuminata" as the vehicle that will allow her to return to the Paris stage in triumph--and with Tuccio in tow as her latest lover.

As the fate of the play unfolds, the company's self-absorbed leading man Dominique (Rufus Sewell) carries on with the ingenue Simone (Georgina Cates), while Astergourd and Pallenchio unknowingly swap partners, at least for a night, as Astergourd vamps the beefy, aging clown Beppo (Leo Bassi), whose plump lover Marta (Aida Turturro) sets her sights on Pallenchio.

Turturro and his formidable cast carry off all these tempestuous shenanigans with admirable aplomb. The themes of Tuccio's play surface in his relationship with Rachel, who without much reflection accepts the gossip buzzing about Sarah and Tuccio as truth. Jealousy and anger, as Rachel comes to realize, make her love for Tuccio something less than perfect.

Look, feel and tone are crucial to the success of such a potentially precious and flighty undertaking. Yet everything falls into place and seems exactly right: the brisk tempo, the crisp, witty performances, the slightly sooty touch--think of all those Czech comedies of the '60s--to cameraman Harris Savides' lovely images that capture so beautifully the evocative settings and costumes of Robin Standefer and Donna Zakowska, respectively.

They no doubt cost a fraction of those for Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence" yet are far more consistently authentic.

Typical of the resourcefulness and subtlety of this film's approach is the use of the baroque-style Loew's Jersey, one of the greatest surviving movie palaces; it wasn't built until two decades after this film takes place, so the filmmakers use only glimpses of it to suggest opulence, whereas a more literal use of the theater would be thuddingly anachronistic. Completing the picture is William Bolcom's irresistibly romantic yet never overdone score.

The light, right touch prevails throughout, with Turturro inspiring glorious performances from his very large cast that includes Ben Gazzara as Rachel's father, a theater stalwart whose memory is beginning to fade.

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