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Life can become a 'Mambo'

'Mambo Italiano' deftly mixes comedy and substance while dealing with the difficulties that gay lovers face in their relationship.

September 19, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Mambo Italiano" is the crowd-pleaser its trailer suggests, but its makers deploy broad swaths of tempestuous Italian immigrant behavior to set off serious concerns with more skill and subtlety than is usual with ethnic comedies, especially those with a gay theme.

That it plays like a shiny, garish TV sitcom with an abundance of ebullient personalities is actually a plus.

This allows director Emile Gaudreault and co-writer Steve Gallucio, upon whose play the film is based, to confront their characters and their audiences alike with some of the realities of gay life in a manner that is amusing yet at times quite tart and anything but funny. "Mambo Italiano" is intent on offering viewers a good time yet manages to sneak in considerable substance in a disarming, even old-fashioned manner.

Angelo Barberini (Luke Kirby) and his terminally neurotic older sister Anna (Claudia Ferri) still live with their Italian immigrant parents, Gino (Paul Sorvino) and Maria (Ginette Reno), in Montreal's Little Italy, where adult children feel they can leave home only when they get married or die. Anna would love to land a husband, but so far is luckless, while Angelo is a closeted gay who holds a menial, boring job at a big travel agency while striving unsuccessfully to become a TV writer.

By the time Angelo, who is slight and curly-haired, reached high school he was targeted as gay by the other kids, and his lifelong friend Nino (Peter Miller) shunned him.

Their paths cross again, with Nino, now a hunky cop, apologetic for past behavior. Their attraction proves mutual, and Nino soon moves in with Angelo, who recently weathered a family storm simply because he moved to his own apartment. Angelo can't believe his good fortune, for Nino is a sweet, caring Adonis, but how long can they sustain the ruse that they're just roommates?

Angelo has the itch to come out, but the macho Nino cannot conceive of their being open about their relationship, especially since he's a policeman. Their deeply religious Italian Catholic families and community could scarcely be expected to accept them as a couple.

When the lid predictably blows off their relationship, the explosion not surprisingly reveals lots of deep-dyed ignorance and hypocrisy, not to mention downright cruelty, but the filmmakers present it with comic outrageousness, the better to let its implications sink in unobtrusively. They are forgiving to those who deserve it and don't judge hopeless homophobes, humorously leaving that instead to heaven.

They sharply delineate the pressures on an ultra-masculine homosexual or bisexual male like Nino to try to go straight in a rigidly traditional, conservative environment, and they are not afraid to present Angelo as a character real enough to have some decidedly unsympathetic moments.

Angelo has, as one would expect, a certain degree of internalized homophobia that comes out in hostility toward effeminate gays. He hates his travel agency job so much that he is rude to customers on the phone, and his lack of compassion for himself reveals itself when he takes a stab at volunteering at a gay hotline only to treat callers with the same impatience and contempt. Quite apart from the question of whether Angelo can sustain a relationship with Nino in the closet or out, he clearly has a lot of growing up to do.

Sorvino and Reno, a veteran Canadian actress, set the tone for an ensemble cast by playing the old country-style parents with an affection that that allows them to be more than easy stereotypes.

Having a lot of fiery, shtick-laden characters around sets off the normality of Angelo and Nino's behavior and personalities, and they are well-played by Kirby and Miller. Best of all, Gaudreault and Gallucio avoid tying up everything neatly and instead wrap up "Mambo Italiano" on warm, open note that is most welcome.


'Mambo Italiano'

MPAA rating: R for language and sexual situations

Times guidelines: Mature themes

Luke Kirby...Angelo Barberini

Paul Sorvino...Gino Barberini

Ginette Reno...Maria Barberini

Peter Miller...Nino Paventi

Claudia Ferri...Anna Barberini

A Samuel Goldwyn Films presentation of a Cinemaginaire production. Director Emile Gaudreault. Producers Denise Robert, Daniel Louis. Screenplay Gaudreault and Steve Galluccio; based on Galluccio's play. Cinematographer Serge Ladouceur. Editor Richard Comeau. Music FM Le Sieur. Costumes Francesca Chamberland. Art director Patricia Christie. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

In general release.

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