Colorization, commercial breaks and other atrocities of viewing movies on television are the targets of Maurizio Nichetti's multi-layered "The Icicle Thief." In this none too subtle hommage to De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief," Nichetti also chides the medium as mind massage, a pixel bath that washes over viewers preoccupied with their evening newspapers.
An average Italian family -- father, mother, 2.6 children (Mom's preggers) -- are tuned in to a broadcast of "The Icicle Thief," a movie of the week hosted by a pompous critic who had originally scheduled "The Manchurian Candidate." Nichetti, clownishly played by Nichetti, arrives at the studio for an interview, slips in a paint spill, rips his coat and loses his pants. And all too soon, his neo-realist hankie-wetter of a movie-within-a-movie will be likewise torn, colorized and undone.
Set in the years after World War II, this film is the story of Antonio Piermattei (also Nichetti), a glass-factory worker who struggles to support his wife and two boys. Life is a melodramatic struggle for the Piermatteis, who live in a hovel, pray often and eat nothing but cabbage. Every 11 minutes, however, a commercial break interrupts these wrenching scenes of poverty -- glossy consumer-age salutes to candy bars, fast cars and artichoke aperitifs.
Suddenly, a power surge fuses the film's four levels -- past meets present and black-and-white meets color when a leggy Nordic blonde (Heidi Komarek) in a skimpy bathing suit suddenly appears in the TV movie. Antonio, who is bicycling home with a stolen crystal chandelier, saves her from drowning in a local canal. Wrapping her in his shabby jacket, Antonio brings the model home and estranges his wife, Maria (Caterina Sylos Labini), who jumps into the same canal only to wind up in a musical detergent ad. When Antonio cannot explain Maria's absence, he is arrested for murder.
In the studio, Nichetti is outraged and decides to enter his movie himself to restore the plot. Suddenly the creator finds himself at the mercy of his own characters, who jail him for counterfeiting money. The Italian couch potato family members, who have been watching out of the corners of their eyes, don't notice that anything has gone awry. And Nichetti, pounding on the inside of the tube, cannot grab their attention.
Nichetti, a writer, director and actor, is Italy's answer to Woody Allen, all film erudition and self-deprecation. And like "Zelig" and to some degree "The Purple Rose of Cairo," Nichetti's film is a work to be admired, if not enjoyed. "The Icicle Thief" does not grip or involve us, but like a clever child, it demands our attention and our tolerance.
The Icicle Thief, at the Key in Italian with subtitles, is unrated but suitable for all audiences.