Bless the Italians and their obsession with movies. Having created a permanent niche in the hearts of the world's movie sentimentalists with "Cinema Paradiso," they now let loose their secret weapon, writer-director-actor and comic extraordinaire, Maurizio Nichetti.
In his ingenious comedy "The Icicle Thief" (Royal, Esquire) Nichetti has taken a wide-eyed look at his own cinema, past and present, and has staggered back from the vision, his mind brimming over with invention. On the one hand, there is Italy's hallowed neo-realist past, those grainy, black-and-white postwar images full of stubbled, unemployed fathers, sacrificial mothers and brave, bustling priests. On the other, there are the television shows that "present" these films: a wasteland of lofty, sluglike critics, only too willing to interpret a director's deepest motives and intentions--even to the director himself.
Then there is a third factor: Italian television itself, a dizzying fantasy world of perky jingles and pop color schemes, in which elongated blondes dive into an astonished consumer's wineglass or bathtub.
Nichetti has narrowed those soulful eyes of his, taken dead aim and come up with a sweetly hilarious movie that somehow braids all three. It's three-dimensional Tic-Tac-Toe with deuces wild, to mix metaphors as cheerfully as Nichetti blends different levels of reality, and mixes color and black-and-white. Pirandello rarely did it better and in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," Woody Allen didn't get this nuttily complex.
Nichetti has two acting roles here. With very round glasses and a very large mustache that makes him look just like the Cartoon Chef (late of the Times' pages), he is the hapless Nichetti, director of the neo-realist classic "The Icicle Thief." Without the mustache and glasses, he is Antonio, the film's lead character, head of a brave little unemployed family consisting of young mama Maria (Caterina Sylos Labini), her heart set on a singing career; Bruno, their cherubic son of about 7, the only level head in the place; and a baby who by any standards leads a charmed life.
Down at the television station where his film classic is being explained to death, "director" Nichetti is horrified to discover that it's also being pockmarked by color commercials. The worst is on the way--a blinding electrical pop at the station suddenly deposits one of the commercials' stars, a 6-foot English-speaking blond model in her ice-blue thong bathing suit, in the middle of the black-and-white purity of this gritty film, where her presence raises every sort of hell with the characters' lives. And so the entanglements on every level begin.
Details have been made as authentic as possible--the parodies are so deadly close to their sources they could almost pass for the real thing. Hasn't that ice cream jingle been rattling around our TV sets--and our brains? Wasn't Don Italo, that most resourceful of priests, a staple from DeSica films? It's this accuracy, plus inspired acting all around, that gives the film its edge of perfection for movie buffs. But even if Neapolitan ice cream is the closest you've been to anything Italian, "The Icicle Thief" is still miraculously funny.
The final fillip is the inherent charm of everyone involved. The friendship between young Bruno, the pint-size man of the house, and the model (Heidi Komarek), works partly because of Bruno's hilarious matter-of-factness with this towering exotic and partly because she's not a lioness, but a pussycat.
"Director" Nichetti is beguiling, even when he is charged with comic fury about the way his characters are beginning to live lives of their own. (Those with good memories will remember Nichetti as the beleaguered live-action artist from the otherwise all-animated feature "Allegro Non Troppo"--and he was pretty funny there, too.) "The Icicle Thief" is a lot like its creator--slight, ingenious and sneakily irresistible.
'THE ICICLE THIEF'
An Aries Films release. Director Maurizio Nichetti. Screenplay Nichetti, Mauro Monti. Camera Mario Battistoni. Set design Ada Legori. Costumes Maria Pia Angelini. Sound Amedeo Casati. Music Manuel De Sica. Editor Rita Olivati. With Nichetti, Caterina Sylos Labini, Federico Rizzo, Renato Scarpa, Heidi Komarek, Carlina Torta, Massimo Sacilotto, Glaudio G. Fava.
Running time: 90 minutes.