"Henry IV" is drawn from Pirandello's play, and the movie is, well, Pirandellian, a meditation on the competing realities of art and life. A rich madman (Marcello Mastroianni) has retreated to a castle where, attended and amused by musicians and retainers, he lives as if he were Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor. The clock on the castle wall is motionless. Here, time has stopped.
A group of his friends and relatives (and a doctor) arrive with a plan to shock "Henry" back to the modern world, but as the story unfolds, you realize that he's on to them -- that he's not really mad at all, but an actor and an artist who has stage-managed his own reality as a way to avoid the scarier madness of everyday life.
"Henry IV" is studded with occasional comedy, and Mastroianni plays his gags masterfully, watching the others with the alertness of a deer, spooning out his role moment by moment. Mastroianni broods effortlessly; he hasn't been this light, this graceful, in years.
But as staged by director Marco Bellochio, "Henry IV" is gilded and lifeless. The movie is beautifully shot, the castle so dark and cramped you can smell the dampness, the faces lit as richly as Rembrandt's. By making the frame so pretty, though, and by flattening his actors into a conversational style, Bellochio has neutered this most theatrical of plays. The movie is subdued when it should be crazy and flamboyant; they've taken the tempest away from Prospero.
Although Bellochio has generally done a good job of opening the play up (except for Henry's monologues, which come in stagy, dramatically lit closeups), the problem with "Henry IV" lies not in craft, but in spirit. The last thing Pirandello needs at this point is an adaptation full of good taste and respect. His plays have become "masterpieces" in the canon as surely as Shakespeare's, crusty with familiarity. They need someone to make them dangerous again; not someone with a "good eye," but a visionary.
Henry IV, at the Key Theatre, is rated PG-13 and contains nudity and profanity.