IN PUPI AVATI'S "Incantato," 35-year-old Nello Balocchi (Neri Marcore) is a blessed, childlike naif in the Italian movie tradition: painfully shy, achingly adorable. No half measures here. In Italian movies, at least of this kind, everyone must be emphatically something, as if subtlety or suggestion are the worst things that could ever happen to a character.
Almost instantly, you realize this 2003 film (Italian title "ll Cuore Altrove"), which was previously known as "The Heart Is Elsewhere," is asking for a suspension of many things, including believability and realism. It's a warm bath experience, soap-sudsed with sentimentality, improbability and other storytelling misdemeanors. You can only enjoy this by dunking yourself heedlessly into the froth.
In 1920s Rome, Nello, a teacher of Latin and Greek classics, has become a source of anxiety to his long-suffering, womanizing father, Cesare (Giancarlo Giannini). Nello, who seems almost asexual, shows little interest in getting married and furthering the family line of tailors who proudly serve the pope. So Cesare dispatches his virginal son to teach in Bologna, hoping Nello will find a woman. For the rest of the movie, Cesare and his shopful of chatty, bickery seamstresses wait for telegrams from Nello. They come, but they're always premature. Nello thinks he has found someone. Stop. Marriage is a possibility. Stop. Nello turns out to have been wrong. Start over.
Nello's only romantic success seems to be with his students, who fall instantly in love with their new teacher -- as if cued off-camera by the director. (In my old school, we would have destroyed the poor guy. But that was England. This is "Italy.") But when Nello's lusty roommate Domenico (Nino D'Angelo) tries to set him up with his blind sister, Nello falls for another blind woman. Her name is Angela (Vanessa Incontrada). She's clearly too beautiful and vampy for him, but he pursues her anyway. Vanessa, whose blindness was caused by an accident (and true to the movie's soapiness is destined to be reversed), decides to use Nello's goofy attentions to get her own from a former lover. Nello (despite warnings from Angela's father) falls for her manipulations hook, line and sinker.
Actor Marcore always keeps Nello interesting, even though the teacher's frequently too precious and meek at times. And even though his character is a weary type, it's always a treat to see a reappearance from Giannini, whose collaborations with director Lina Wertmuller in the 1970s lit an exciting fire under Italian cinema. As for Incontrada, she's a unidimensional plot detail, a Jessica Rabbit who can't see. But there I go again, using the wrong criteria. Hit me with a scrubbing brush or something. Remember: "Incantato" is about the bubbles. And the warmth underneath.
INCANTATO (Unrated, 103 minutes) -- Contains nudity and sexual content. In Italian with subtitles. At the American Film Institute Silver Theatre.
in the warm and fuzzy "Incantato," which may be the warm- water mark in Italian filmmaking.