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'The Family' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 26, 1988

Ettore Scola's "The Family," an album with a velvet cover, is meant to touch the extended family of man. But like somebody else's home movies, after a while it simply wears thin.

Formal portraits, bookends in this 80-year saga, enclose the central story, which opens with the baptism of the hero Carlo, a baby in his grandfather's lap, and ends with Carlo as a grandfather with a baby in his arms. It's Scola's salute to the sturdiness of the institution, a thoughtful Italian "Upstairs, Downstairs." But without the gossip and intrigue.

Scola neither titillates nor tattles in this abstraction, which is less a compelling story than a retrospective on renounced passions and the rituals of domesticity. The family is given to squabbling, but Scola wrings little drama out of eight decades of shared meals. And never once do we get out of the house, whose rooms provide the film's structure as the dance hall did in "Le Bal."

Times change with the wallpaper, and history weathers the characters, worn down by the winds of war and the turning political tides. Outside World War I rages; inside little boys swat each other with wooden swords. Run through by a playmate, one cousin plays dead, while in the other room the family patriarch passes on.

As a 20-year-old literature professor, Carlo (Andrea Occhipinti) forsakes romance for routine when he chooses between two sisters, Adriana and Beatrice -- a decision he regrets till the fires burn too low for him to care what feeds them anymore.

Vittorio Gassman, part of Scola's own film family, plays Carlo at 40. The character's age and personality change too abruptly when the handsome, earnest Occhipinti turns into the gaunt, intense Gassman, who looks his 66 years. Now given to outbursts of temper, Carlo is alternately self-satisfied and self-absorbed. His sunny, sweet-natured wife Beatrice (Stefania Sandrelli) is the ideal mate and mother, but he continues to pine for Adriana (Jo Ciampa/Fanny Ardant), the glamorous globe-trotting concert pianist.

Carlo's bond with his ne'er-do-well brother Giulio is also explored, and various uncles, maiden aunts, kids and kissing cousins also figure into the story. They're like people you meet at a cocktail party whom you'll never see again. You listen politely and forget all about them before your napkin can shred.

Gassman's performance is complex, but not particularly sympathetic. And the uninvolving Ardant seems even more brittle than usual, especially after the ripe Jo Ciampa's flirty turn as Adriana at 20. While Gassman has his most explosive moments with Ardant, his scenes with Sandrelli are full of warmth and resonance and the comfort of long-marrieds. "I love it when parties are over," says Beatrice to Carlo as they down the last of the cabernet after a huge family fete. "You can sit and gossip."

Comfort or passion? Carlo couldn't really decide until it was too late. It was the same for the filmmaker, who seemed neither at ease with his perspective nor passionate about his ideas.

The Family, at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle, is rated PG.

Copyright The Washington Post

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