Illuminata: Turturro’s Sophomore Directing is Labor of Love

Clearly a labor of love, Illuminata, John Turturro’s sophomore directorial effort, is an audaciously bold, structurally messy and vastly uneven film about the fables and foibles of a tightly knit acting troupe at turn-of-the century New York.

A follow-up to Mac, which won the 1992 Camera d’Or, this meditation on love–its compromises, imperfections, sacrifices and rewards–feels very much like a personal film, one in which Turturro and wife-actress Katherine Borowitz disclose intimate issues that must have beset their own marriage.

A colorfully illustrious cast, that includes Christopher Walken as a pompous drama critic, Susan Sarandon as an aging diva, and Ben Gazzara as an old thesp, should help secure theatrical distribution stateside, though this incoherently problematic film, which vacillates quite a bit before finding its emotional center, will sharply divide critics, with European ones more likely to appreciate its originality than their American counterparts.

Mac, which paid homage to Turturro’s carpenter father as an artist, was obviously influenced by Cassavetes in its thematics and stylistics. New film continues to draw on Cassavetes (including the use of the Ben Gazzara, the late filmmaker’s pro), but is more specifically inspired by the classic French tradition of Feydeau’s bedroom farces, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece Rules of the Game, Marcel Carne’s poetic Children of Paradise and other works about the magical, all-consuming life in the theater.

Set in 1905, when theater was the dominant form of entertainment in America, the movie expresses as much affection for the craft and wizardry of actors when they are on stage as it does for their tempestuous, neurotic personalities offstage. Obeying the rules of a well-constructed drama, Illuminata is divided into a prologue and three acts which vary in duration and mood.

A rather weak, rambling beginning introduces the large ensemble of players who’ll later enact their personal and public lives. Turturro plays Tuccio, an ambitious writer who’s the resident playwright of a struggling repertory company, owned by Astergourd and Pallenchio (Beverly D’Angelo and Donal McCann). He is anxious to stage his new play, Illuminata, which he specifically wrote for Rachel (Borowitz), the company’s distinguished actress/manager and daughter of Flavio (Gazzara), the senior thesp who’s lost his memory. The owners claim that his play is unfinished, but when young actor Piero (Matthew Sussman) collapses during a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana, Tuccio unscrupulously contrives to substitute his play for an audience that includes the powerful critic Bevalaqua (Walken) and the latter savages the work with venom.

In the second act, which is the longest and least satisfying, Turturro and co-scripter Brandon Cole (who also worked on Mac), arranges amorous rendez-vous for each of the leading characters. Using cross-cutting, pic jumps around from the salon of Celimene (Sarandon), the celebrated star who’s seducing Tuccio with promises for international fame when she’ll do his play, to the bedroom of foppish critic Bevalaqua as he uniquely and none too subtlely lures Marco (Bill Irwin), the company clown sent to him as a messenger. Simultaneously, the troupe’s juvenile leads (Brits Rufus Sewell and Georgina Cates) and veteran clown (Leo Bassi) and supporting actress (Aida turturro) engage in their own sexual diversions.

It’s here that Illuminata severely misfires, for Turturro lacks (as an actor and director) the light touch and tricky tempo necessary for staging what’s meant to be an hilarious farce. On more than a few occasions, helmer succumbs to a childishly silly dialogue and gross-out conduct that are more irritating than entertaining.

Surprisingly, story regains its emotional and dramatic core in the last act, which brings together forcefully its central issues: The exacting challenge of sustaining love once physical passion subsides, and the inherently insecure nature of relationships that are equally defined by the public and private domains and intricately encompass love and work. While not every monologue that Tuccio and Rachel deliver works, those that are touching are bound to connect with adult viewers who have experienced the bitter-sweet taste of mature love.

As evidenced in Mac and other movies, Turturro is at heart idealistic and romantic, dimensions that he brings quite intensely to the role of the restlessly ambitious, egotistical playwright, forced to acknowledge his imperfections. Borowitz also has good moment as the uncompromisingly loyal woman whose life has been dedicated to loving Tuccio.

It’s almost impossible to single out individual performances in what’s clearly an ensemble piece. Still, fans of Walken will rejoice at the way he looks and moves as the flamboyantly gay critic; Sarandon is beautiful as the both amoral and immoral diva; D’Angelo is properly tough and sensitive as the theater owner; handsome Sewell seems ready to assume romantic leads; Irwin is not clownish enough, but still brings a measure of pathos and merriment to his encounters with the critic.

Look of the outdoor scenes, which are few, is compromised, but Robin Standefer’s production design of the theater quarters and Donna Zakowska’s costumes are vigorously colorful in the manner of 40s and 50s pictures. With the exception of few mistakes, in which the camera inexplicably shifts from sharp high angle to low angle, Harris Savides’ vibrant lensing compensates for several maladroitly written and staged scenes.