Italians are giving the French a run for their pajamas when it comes to symbolic sex performed at preposterous moments. That and more make Bernardo Bertolucci's new film "Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man," with Ugo Tognazzi and Anouk Aimee, muzzy going. Even with subtitles, non capisco. Is it tragedy? Is it funny? What happened? What happens? Is it a mystery? I know it was to me.
Rich cinematography, stunningly beautiful and lush as cream, thick and realer than real by Carlo Di Palma and provocative moody performances by a sensual, self-absorbed Aimee and a sullen, bemused Tognazzi are laudable. But the situations they get into are ludicrous and unreal.
That makes "Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man" one for the film buffs, a chance to compare and contrast Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" with his punk pogoing outside Milan. It's a film for students of Italian politics: Frequent, obscure references to Socialists and elections help confuse what's already a muddled plot. And be warned, there'll be no neat solution in the end. Bertolucci, who wrote and directed, leaves it up to you: You solve it, put it all together for yourself. Grow a little. Come on.
"What's it all about, Tognazzi?" might be an alternate title for the film. Tognazzi, well known for his role as the gay owner of "La Cage Aux Folles," plays Primo Spaggiari, an Italian agribusinessman who has built up a pig-and-parmesan-cheese corporation from dirt. He's making a passage of the Gail Sheehey sort into far middle age, and his son Giovanni (played by Tognazzi's son Riki) has given him a pair of binoculars for his birthday.
From the roof of his cheese factory, where he's trying his binoculars, he sees his son kidnapped in a cornfield. Later the usinessman, his wife, Barbara (Aimee), his son's girlfriend, Laura (Laura Morante), and the police meet in the cornfield and the mystery begins to muck up like cold cheese on a pizza.
At first, everything goes well for Bertolucci in his tale of gaps between the sexes, the generations, the classes, the masses, the head and the heart. There's a lot to stuff in two hours, and when you throw in the sex and the symbolism, you've got spaghetti. Hold the fork and spoon.
The sex, though tamer than the stuff of "Last Tango," is just as incongruous. The father, who has now learned that his son had a girlfriend, comforts the sultry, sobbing young thing by kissing her passionately, and though one can't be sure, nebulosity being the hallmark of the film, it seems they made love. Did they cut away or didn't they? Is this a change of scene or of pace? Did they make love? Is she a leftist terrorist? Is his son dead?
More of the same, but stranger yet, follows in a second scene with dad and the swarthy, pouty, mysterious Laura. Primo has persuaded her to forge his son's handwriting in a fake ransom note to his wife's numerologist when suddenly Laura tells him that he embarrasses her. She then rips off a long wool scarf so that she can tear off her sweater. He comments on the copiousness of her primary sexual characteristics and she then continues to write the note. It was embarrassing.
There are strange moments with a worker priest named Alfedo, played by Victor Cavallo, who does his share of pouting and moping. Though he doesn't get in on the sex, being celibate, he does get in on the symbolism. A final dance scene at a punk club/folk dance emporium in the middle of a cow pasture has Alfedo dancing with the new wave. Old authentic types sit beside the dance floor drinking from grimy wine bottles, accepting and enjoying the young dancers. The music stops and the young worker priest dances to music no one else can hear.
Don't ask, as the film advises. Don't ask. TRAGEDY OF A RIDICULOUS MAN -- At the K-B Janus.