At its best, "Kaos," the latest movie from the Taviani brothers ("The Night of the Shooting Stars"), is as seemingly artless, and as rooted, as a folk tale told over a kitchen table. The movie is erratic and overlong (more than three hours), yet it showcases the kind of pure storytelling that is the Tavianis' me'tier.
Drawn from the short stories of Luigi Pirandello, the movie consists of four long vignettes, which go rather consistently downhill, and an epilogue.
In the first, "The Other Son," a mother (Margarita Lozano) pines for her lost sons, who have emigrated to America. She sends letters to them that they never answer; it turns out that the girl who writes the letters for her merely scribbles on a piece of paper. One son remains, and he follows her loyally, yet she'll have nothing to do with him. As she tells a doctor (Carlo Cartier), this last son was the progeny of an unholy union with a brigand who raped her and killed her husband.
"The Other Son" captures what is unique in the Tavianis -- a sense of memory as a vivid presence. While the story of the rape is told in flashback, the movement between past and present is seamless; the past is alive, if nowhere else, in Lozano's broad, lined face, her sly and crazy eyes. The scenes are richly textured with bits of extrinsic life -- a boy, say, walking a dog by its hind legs -- that give it a loose, carnival atmosphere.
The Tavianis have a genius for hooking up sensations with the people feeling them, for linking memory and the rememberer, that makes the best things in "Kaos" seem organic, all of a piece. If you hear a bell on the sound track, they hit you with a close-up of the bell; if someone pricks himself on a cactus, you get a close-up of the cactus. The movie has a heightened awareness of life, as it's taken by moments. Their compositions are beautiful without the sort of showoffy exercise in style that has invaded American movies by way of TV commercials. And they're at their best when they can move the camera (which they can't always do, given the rugged landscape); they edit their moving shots so that they compensate and balance each other, like the inner workings of a clock.
Helping also to create this world is Nicola Piovani's beautiful, lush, old-style movie score, with its lonely horns (in "The Other Son"), or its tense strings, its haunting woodwinds (in the second story, "Moon Sickness"). "Moon Sickness" is the Tavianis' version of a vampire tale, and again, they enrich it with odd bits of humor -- a cat-and-dog routine, or a man talking to a donkey. The story, which is mostly shot day-for-night in an imperial blue, acknowledges the horror movies that have adapted similar folk tales without parodying them; the Tavianis create their own version of the supernatural.
The third tale, "The Jar," deals with a domineering landowner who has ordered an absurdly colossal jar (it looks like a prop out of Meyerhold) and his struggle with the workman who seeks to repair the jar and ends up stuck inside it. The roles are played, respectively, by the Laurel and Hardy of Italy, Ciccio Ingrassia, a tall, impressively nosed bully with a sensual leer, and squat, scheming Franco Franchi. But while pleasant enough, there isn't anything going on here -- it really is nothing more than a vaudeville routine, and a long one at that.
The fourth tale, "Requiem," deals with the desire of a group of villagers to have their own cemetery approved by the local baron, and is about as pointless and fake portentous as such a story could be -- it commits, in fact, exactly the errors the Tavianis avoided in "The Other Son." It could easily have been cut -- as could "The Jar" -- but, in what must be a first in film history, the studio (MGM) insisted that "Kaos" (which had originally been produced for Italian television) be shown intact. Which only goes to prove that, whether they are cutting (as they usually do) or enlarging, the studio is always wrong.
The pieces are tied together by lovely aerial shots of a crow, with a bell tied around its neck, circling the ruins and baked-brown desolation of the Sicilian countryside. The epilogue takes Pirandello back to his village of Cavusu (which he claimed was a corruption of the Greek "kaos" -- hence the title). It has the beauty of summation, with its Chinese boxes of memory, as Pirandello imagines an encounter with his mother and the childhood story he could never tell of his family's departure for a deserted island. And in that final image, as the children in their white pants and white petticoats fall, almost in flight, down a dune of white pumice into an impossibly clear blue Mediterranean, you have it all: the purity of pure Taviani.
Kaos, opening today at the Key Theatre, is rated R, and contains nudity, violence and sexual situations.