Giuseppe Tornatore is in love with people who are in love with the movies. His sunny “Cinema Paradiso,” winner of the 1989 Oscar for best foreign language film, showed how a village theater in Sicily changed the life of a small boy. “The Star Maker,” the writer-director’s latest, covers some of the same territory but with a critical difference.
Also set in Sicily (and also nominated for the foreign language Oscar), “Star Maker” deals not with the fulfillment of dreams but with what can happen when you dishonor them. Ultimately much darker in tone than “Cinema Paradiso,” it combines elements of “The Music Man” with Fellini’s “La Strada” in a mixture that, not surprisingly, is alternately awkward and intriguing.
Joe Morelli (Sergio Castellitto) is the putative star maker of the title, a roving talent scout, or so he claims, from Universalia Studios in Rome. The year is 1953 and Joe is motoring with his sound truck and his camera through parts of Sicily so remote he’s not always sure if the residents speak Italian.
Joe himself, on the other hand, doesn’t know what it means to be at a loss for words. A tireless seller of dreams, he can’t draw breath without uttering a variant of “You have a fantastic future and you don’t even know it.” He’s said “What a face” so often, he even offers the compliment to a corpse.
The world according to Joe is peopled exclusively by potential customers, those willing to pay him 1,500 lira for the privilege of being put on film. All tests go to Rome, and Joe promises nothing. “Movies,” he says in a rare brush with truth, “are a mean business.”
One of the themes of “Star Maker” is, once again, a tribute to the power of motion pictures. An especially charming sequence shows how transfixed an entire town gets with lines from “Gone With the Wind” that Joe distributes. The chance to be immortal on film is an elixir, a wonder drug of hope no one is strong enough to resist.
Tornatore is a native of Sicily, and more than in “Cinema Paradiso,” this film is an unashamed love note to what he sees as the simple wisdom of his rural countrymen. Abandoned women, policemen, homosexuals, even the fearsome Baldalamenti brothers, kings of banditry, open their hearts to Joe’s camera. A 112-year-old veteran of Garibaldi’s Thousand shares reminiscences; a shepherd reasons with the stars; a man confesses, “I don’t know how to be happy.”
Though you’d have to be a stone not to be enchanted by this guileless display, it’s the initial and shaky conceit of “Star Maker” that Joe Morelli, the man who calls it forth, is not. He considers the people he photographs “dumb beasts and rednecks,” little dreaming that fate will make him pay a price for his callousness.
The essence of affability for much of its length, “Star Maker’s” screenplay doesn’t seem to have any more sense of direction than Joe himself, and Tornatore (who came up with the idea and shares writing credit with Fabio Rinaudo) prides himself on having filmed a script that “has the characteristics of a non-script.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay a non-script long enough. Joe meets an especially naive and “simple” young woman named Beata (Tiziana Lodato) and everything alters both for him and the movie, as all the melodramatic plot devices “Star Maker” has been carefully avoiding pour out all at once like water through a broken dike.
Besides getting too much of a sense of direction too fast, “Star Maker” also experiences a marked and surprising change of tone. Unlike the somewhat similar “La Strada,” which was melancholy throughout, the switch feels abrupt and arbitrary, like an eclipse suddenly blotting out the sun. We cherish the lightness that came before, but that pleasure is overshadowed by the regret about where and how it’s gone.
* MPAA rating: R, for some strong sexuality, language and a brutal beating. Times guidelines: The eroticism is more pronounced than the violence.
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‘The Star Maker’
Sergio Castellitto: Joe Morelli
Tiziana Lodato: Beata
Franco Scaldati: Brigadiere Mastropaolo
Leopoldo Trieste: Mute
Clelia Rondinella: Anna’s mother
Released by Miramax Films. Director Giuseppe Tornatore. Producers Vittorio & Rita Cecchi Gori. Executive producer Mario Cotone. Screenplay Giuseppe Tornatore and Fabio Rinaudo, story by Giuseppe Tornatore. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editor Massimo Quaglia. Costumes Beatrice Bordone. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Francesco Bronzi. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.