The Embalmer
M O V I E    R E V I E W    B Y    D A V I D    G U R E V I C H

Frankly, neither the title, The Embalmer, nor the description of this Italian film -- a dwarf taxidermist falls in love with his assistant -- is very promising. Strictly grade B, straight to video, midnight cult shows at best.

Hold your horses. Yes, the main character, Peppino, is a dwarf taxidermist, and Ernesto Mahieux who plays him has a mean grin, complete with two fang-like front teeth. But Director Matteo Garrone has bigger fish to fry here. In fact, he shows the gruesome carcasses that serve as material for Peppino's work only in the beginning, to set up the mood; as we get deeper into the picture, he uses subtler means to convey the air of decay and abandonment. And the relation between Peppino's métier and the main conflict becomes more tenuous and less vivid as we go along.

The plot is not terribly complicated: a homoerotic take on The Fatal Attraction -- remember the old Glenn Close-Michael Douglas chestnut? Sex in a freight elevator and the boiled rabbit? Here Peppino sets his sights on Valerio, an Apollo-like youth, played with dreamy nonchalance by Valerio Foglia Manzillo, who looks like a fashion model and is in fact one. Peppino hires him as an overpaid assistant; next, they're having group sex with whores (compared to American gay dogmas, Italians take a more relaxed attitude), and soon Valerio moves into the spare bedroom. Little by little, Peppino begins to lay siege to his assistant's perfectly sculpted body, and then…cherchez la femme. Peppino and Valerio go on a road trip, running an errand for a local mafia don (hey, it's southern Italy, right?), and a certain receptionist named Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti), with perfect legs and a thin determined mouth, waltzes in. Deborah has no false modesty: "I'm very good," she comments on her oral-sex talent. Now the battle for Valerio's body begins in earnest…

All of this could be a perfectly serviceable melodrama, with some mildly interesting overtones as, for example, Valerio's attraction to Peppino as a father figure (Valerio's late father was a hunter and their house had plenty of stuffed animals). Or, in the final scene, a familiar contest of the boring safety of married life v. the footloose, fancy-free gay lifestyle. "The world could be at your feet," Peppino taunts Valerio -- and Valerio is not immune to this argument. I won't divulge the outcome -- not because it will keep you on the edge of your seat, but because it is not the most interesting thing about the film.

The real reason to see this film is not the plot or the acting (serviceable, though Mahieux as Peppino hits all the right notes) -- it is the atmosphere. This is Italy we don't get to see much; there is not a whiff of a sleek lifestyle or a Renaissance fountain or a beautiful Tuscan landscape or even picturesque neo-realist misery. This Italy (shot outside Naples) looks like abandoned Jersey coast: a post-industrial dump, with littered muddy beaches and drab project-like buildings that manage to look both unfinished and crumbling at the same time. You expect to see this in Eastern Europe, not Italy. Peppino himself is a king of kitsch, from his outrageous lounge-lizard outfits to the pretentious interior of his digs. In fact, the whole setup is oddly reminiscent of the recent American film Auto Focus, whose director also made much of Willem Dafoe's "swinging-sixties" wardrobe and house interiors; coincidentally or not, in that film Dafoe also provided women, just like Peppino early in The Embalmer, and homosexual attraction rumbled just below the surface. Peppino doesn't have Defoe's Labrador eyes; he can strike a macho pose, he is an Italian uomo, after all; but the audience is similarly stuck in the no-man's-land between pity and repulsion.

In an early scene, Valerio leaves Peppino's apartment and starts walking home; suddenly, he drops into complete darkness. It's an eerie, disorienting feeling that fills a viewer not so much with horror (if only because there is a silence rather than heavy footsteps or menacing music) as with profound unease -- you just don't expect such darkness in an urban setting -- we know something is wrong about Peppino's generous job offer. Later in the film, the darkness dissipates, but into the fog rather than sunshine -- so we know there are no clear-cut solutions. Whatever happens to our characters, their love triangle will never be set in stone.


[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: First Run Features
Movie Web site: L'Imbalsamatore (Italy)

Photo credits: © 2003 First Run Features. All rights reserved.