Lovers of Giuseppe Tornatore's brilliant "Cinema Paradiso" may be disappointed in his much slighter and less well-developed film "The Star Maker," which opens today at the Rotunda.
Well, too bad, lovers of "Cinema Paradiso." It's not the same movie. Deal with it.
The film has, nevertheless, some extraordinary pleasures, though they are far more casual and incidental than in the dramatically whole "Cinema." Like the preceding film, however, it too is built on the love of movies and the magical transformations that this most powerful, subversive and romantic of all media can make possible.
Closer in tone to "The Music Man" or "The Rainmaker," "The Star Maker" follows a con man working his slimy way through the sticks, bilking the dim of brain and trusting of heart out of their savings. Yet the irony is that in some small way, he is also offering redemption, and in fact it is the deceived who are the winners in his deals.
Joe Morelli (Sergio Castellitto, in a superb performance) is every sleazy hustler who ever took a mark for his life savings. From his pencil-thin mustache to his commanding bluster to his pretend expertise, he radiates unctuous bunco. His scam: He roams from town to town in the rural Sicily of 1953, claiming to represent Universalia Films, offering the rubes a shot at stardom in the form of a screen test, which can be all theirs for a mere 1,500 lira. Of course, the camera is empty, and after having promised them all that "Rome will call in a few weeks," he's packed up his stolen cameras and taken off.
But the odd thing is that Joe himself has no idea of what he's sell- ing: It's not stardom, it's something far more intoxicating self-validation. For as the denizens of these forgotten towns come before him, nominally to bark a few lines from "Gone With the Wind" and then be hustled out, what happens is that they open up and express themselves for the first times in their lives. ++ It's the only time somebody even a con man has listened. And Joe, who is not without a heart, lets them talk; something in him compels him to urge them on. He doesn't realize that he's a crummy con man but a great director. He gets their best takes, first time out.
Stupendous stories of heroism and bitterness and rage and violence come out. The camera somehow taps into the unconscious of the villagers, and their lives unfold in extraordinary detail. In every one, it seems, there's a secret flower waiting to bloom; it may be a flower of hostility, like the mama who will offer Joe anything (even herself) to save her daughter from the bleak life she's had, or it may be a flower of gratitude, as in the old man who remembers how the Germans threatened to kill them at the end of the war but in the end fled under the American bombs.
Joe is no proper custodian for these tales, and the sad spin his life takes as, eventually, his lies catch up to him is of little consequence. In fact, the movie more or less peters out, rather than reaching a particularly powerful climax. A subplot, in which a beautiful but slightly addled virgin (Tiziana Lodato) gives Joe her love and so wakens his, is momentarily touching but ultimately not enough to give the movie much weight.
But "The Star Maker" catches a peculiar human foible: that in his or her heart, each man and woman is the star of his or her own life.
'The Star Maker'
Starring Sergio Castellitto and Tiziana Lodato
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Released by Miramax
Sun score: * * 1/2
Pub Date: 3/22/96