"To Forget Venice," the new film by Franco Brusati, director of "Bread and Chocolate," is at best a curious disappointment. Brusati's powers of invention -- often brilliantly surprising and revealing in his previous movie -- seem to have failed in this melancholy comedy about people clinging to the past.
The popularity of "Bread and Chocolate" derived from the creation of a comic protagonist of immense appeal.The appeal lot twists and episodes always diverged from an ongoing identification with the plight of Nino Manfred's frustrated immigrant laborer, an Italian family man struggling to improve his lot in Switzerland.
No such appeal pervades "To Forget Venice," now at the K-B Janus. It navigates between past and present, fishing for over-explicit "keys" to human behavior. The script keeps sighing and murmuring significantly, but the five principal characters never embody drives or fears that succeed in making deep imprints or in resounding with significance.
The plot outline suggests a kind of double-decker variation on Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries." (An appropriate title might be "Mild Pasta.") The Bergman influence may also be detected in the borrowing of Erland Josephson, an actor from the Bergman stock company, to play one of the leading roles, which he does exceptionally well, creating an impression of amiable fuddy-duddiness that might be memorably amusing in another context.
The present-tense action, such as it is, takes place in and around a country estate somewhere near Venice, which remains as unvisited and symbolic as the Moscow of Chekhov's "Three Sisters." This shabbily genteel residence is inhabited by four ladies in various stages of retirement. Marta (Hella Petri), the owner, is a once-celebrated diva who projects a raucous zest for life despite precarious health. She shelters a dotty old nanny named Caterina and a lesbian couple, Anna and Claudia (Mariangela Melato and Eleonora Giorgi), who are evidently continuing a friendship and dependency begun in adolescence.
Anna, a niece of Marta's first husband, appears to manage the estate. Claudia is an incorrigibly girlish schoolteacher shown frowning in fascinated apprehension when happening upon youthful fornicators while leading her class on a woodland stroll in the opening sequence of the movie.
Josephson plays Marta's younger brother Nicky, a middle-aged homosexual who has driven over from Milan for a visit. Nicky is accompanied by his lover, Sandro (David Pontremoli). The happy reunion, meant to be topped off by a group excursion to Venice, is blighted by the collapse of Marta, a climactic family tragedy presumably designed to provoke agonizing reappraisals or illuminating reflections from Anna and Nicky, the reflective types.
Brusati introduces these characters by showing them obsessed with adolescent memories. Ana gravely watches herself and Claudia as girls in their confirmation dresses hurling darts and eggs at a photo of Anna's despised mother (also impersonated by Mariangela Melato) and adulterous father. Nicky recalls an unrequited infatuation with a boyhood friend named Rossino -- who later turns up as a contented family man whose appearance has altered so much that Nicky fails to recognize him, although he's drawn to the dead-ringer appearance of one of Rossino's sons.
The hint that these childhood remembrances are meant to be interpreted as formative, even emotionally stunting, experiences is not exactly subtle. The parallel immersion in the past and homosexual tendencies ascribed to Anna and Nicky are obivously intentional; in some ill-defined way Brusati regards them as mutually illuminating cases of arrested emotional development.
Unfortunately, Brusati leaves one asking, So what? The characters are too flimsy and tentative to justify intense feelings one way or the other about their lives, whether freely chosen or sadly doomed. Brusati is onto something here, but he hasn't dramatized it into something that adds up or rings compassionately true.
Anna, in a rage of grief about Marta, is given a speech that appears to reek with thematic insight: "Everything around us changes, but we remain the same, suspended in time . . ." But when Sandro, a sympathetic listener, replies, "Does it matter?" to her accusation, "When Nicky is in bed with you, he embraces a dream," the question sounds ironically sensible.
I'm not certain if more sexual candor would help, but it's impossible to tell if the decorous nature of each homoexual relationship stems from the director's restraint or detachment or from the character's lack of powerful sex drives. Really, the only bond that Anna and Claudia seem to share is swell-looking breasts, while Nicky and Sandro are the picture of placid compatibility.
Where's the fire? If Brusati was interested in raking up psychological depths, he's chosen to poke around in defiantly dead embers.