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‘Open Doors’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 14, 1991

In "Open Doors," the Italian director Gianni Amelio constructs his narrative with a rigor that borders on the perverse. The film makes no concession whatsoever to our need for facile resolutions or even simple accessibility. It sticks stubbornly to its own solemn, clinical method, refusing to ingratiate itself. It won't come to us; it demands that we come to it.

Still, this compelling, difficult, mulish work, conceived in mahogany and shadows, manages somehow to accomplish something quite remarkable, to be both muted and sonorous, placid and searching. Set in Palermo in the '30s, it deals with the trial of a minor Fascist official named Tomasso (Ennio Fantastichini), who is made the scapegoat in a government corruption scandal, fired from his job and excommunicated from his party. Distraught over the loss of his position, he returns one morning to his office, stabs his superior and the man who replaced him, stops along the road to rape and shoot his wife, then stretches out on his bed at home, waiting for the police to arrest him.

During his trial, Tomasso becomes known as "the Monster of Palermo," and because of the brutality of his crimes, the public wants blood. And the Fascist hierarchy is more than willing to satisfy it. For nearly everyone involved, the case is over before it has begun. Tomasso, who in the first day of his trial reads an angry statement denouncing the corruption of Fascist ideals, has confessed his crimes and prepared himself, it seems, to die. All that remains is for the court to go through the motions, get a conviction, take him out and shoot him.

The film deals not so much with Tomasso, though, as it does the judge who presides over his case. The movie is about keeping to standards in the face of pressure, and for Vito Di Francesco (Gian Maria Volonte), the law is the ultimate standard. Nothing, especially not expediency or political fashion, can subvert it. It's because the circumstances of Tomasso's case seem so cut and dried, and because his superiors seem determined to bury the facts and Tomasso along with them, that Vito decides to delve so deeply into the matter.

His motives, it seems, have nothing to do with a desire to expose the real perpetrators of the scandal -- the higher-ups who caused Tomasso to be fired. Nor does he act out of sympathy for the accused. His actions are ruled not by political or personal ideals but by existential ones. He judges, he says, because he is a judge.

The emotional center of the film is the relationship between the judge and Tomasso. Even though they have little occasion for direct communication, a battle rages between them, the shape of which seems obscure and puzzling. As a result, we struggle to get inside each man's head, to sense what he is thinking, and it's a tribute to Amelio that this pursuit takes on such an urgency for us, that we invest so much in getting to the core of what moves these two men.

The performances here percolate at a temperature just below boiling. Stringy and aristocratic, like a Modigliani sculpture of Raymond Massey, Volonte portrays the judge as a man of quiet, stubborn principles, who keeps close counsel with himself. He's a paragon of moderation and reason, a widower with a young daughter who even in his gentlest moments with her seems remote and preoccupied, benignly elsewhere. And if it's possible, Fantastichini's Tomasso seems even more distant, perhaps because his crimes were, in fact, an act of suicide. There's a ferocity to his will to die.

From moment to moment, we stick with the film, despite its glacial pace, because of these characters, and because of the tension Amelio has built so carefully into the subtext. But the director's greatest failure is that given all these complex shadings, the issues resolve themselves so blandly. We felt better about the judge, and closer to him, when we thought he was the disinterested custodian of an ideal, and not, as we later discover, merely an opponent of capital punishment, manipulating the system to make it conform to his own beliefs. By attaching this message, Amelio in essence contradicts all that he has led us to believe about his character, and we feel as if the rug has been pulled out from underneath us. As a result, all of his ploddingly skillful attention to detail seems wasted. His case, so diligently assembled, is toppled by his own closing argument.

"Open Doors" is in Italian with English subtitles and is unrated.

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