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The Ballad of Sergio and Daniel
by Chris Knipp

Two noted European screen actors have recently collaborated with their wives -- with results now on view in US theaters. Rebecca Miller directs Daniel Day-Lewis in The Ballad of Jack and Rose . Sergio Castellitto debuts as director, starring with Penelope Cruz, in a movie made from his wife Margaret Mazzantini's novel, Non ti muovere (Don't Move). Good communication and strong personal commitment are potential advantages to such husband-and-wife collaborations. Obviously, a lack of objectivity could be a danger, but surely these should be performances worth watching? Yet for some reason, neither Don't Move nor Jack and Rose has met with wide approval from local critics. Let's consider why.

Castellitto and Day-Lewis aren't, of course, at all the same kind of actor. The Italian has seemed more of a journeyman, a consummate pro who always hits his marks. Because he can fit in seamlessly wherever needed, he has often been called on to play roles in non-Italian films. The Englishman is more extreme, a chameleon whose extraordinary ability to become absorbed in a character may sometimes exhaust him, which together with his yen for long breaks to try out other occupations has led to years of absence from the screen.

Castellitto's Don't Move is a glossy production about a doctor tormented by an adulterous relationship, and it gives the actor/director the great dramatic role he may have been pining for. He gets to rape and scream and smash things and weep and even, in an inexplicable fit of boredom, to pee on his wife's potted plants. A surgeon, he operates on his girlfriend and must resuscitate his own daughter. In her part as his secret mistress, Penelope Cruz gets a chance to have the great soulful tragic role she was born for, though she has to endure all sorts of cruel misuse along the way.

Too bad Don't Move is a painfully confused melodrama with schlocky eroticism and woman's-picture weepiness (of a kind that's nonetheless demeaning to women) – a movie that feels at times like Zalmon King's sleazy (though undeniably erotic) Red Shoe Diaries . Don't Move even pays King unintentional homage by actually featuring a sexy high-heeled red shoe as one of its major symbols.

A more subliminal kind of symbolism is involved in pitting Timofeo's (Castellitto's) blonde bourgeois wife Elsa (Claudia Gerini) against (ironically, since she's of course Spanish) his battered but intense Albanian girlfriend (Cruz). The mistress' name, in a not-so-subtle irony, is Italia ( Italy ). This makes the whole plot some kind of metaphor for Italy 's perennial North-South identity crisis – the kind of conflict of loyalty, interest, and obligation that led to Bossi's conservative Lega Nord (North League) movement, which aims to waive financial responsibility for the poverty of Italy 's lower half. The implication is that Italy 's foreign immigrants are in for even more brutal treatment.

Don't Move tells the story of Timofeo's torrid, abusive-but-addictive love affair with Italia in flashbacks while Angela, his teenage daughter, is in the operating room hovering near death from skull injuries after a motor scooter accident where her helmet wasn't fastened properly. This should be a warning for young Italians, who can ride their Vespas legally in crazy city traffic from the age of fourteen.

There's an elaborate connection between the two stories, since the affair began shortly before the daughter was conceived. But there's no real point in the flashbacks' running parallel to the operating room drama, other than an overriding need to maintain constant melodrama.

Not only is Timofeo a doctor: all the movie's big scenes refer back to the emergency room. And this makes you realize that whether or not Margaret Mazzantini's novel is a women's story, the movie is ultimately all about Timofeo. That the three women are all mere décor for a display of his ego ultimately becomes alienating. Castellitto gets to run through every emotion, but despite all the theatrics Timofeo remains opaque as a character. Besides the hospital hysterics there are some heavy rainstorms, which also add to the sense of trumped-up theatricality.

Don't Move begins with scenes of anomie and pointless merrymaking among the well-to-do à la Antonioni and Fellini, runs the gamut of crudities those Italian greats weren't allowed – or chose to eschew – only to return to the status quo and to the mature face of Castellito – which has more than a little of the sad soulfulness of Sergio's great cinematic predecessor, Marcello (Mastroianni, of course), Fellini's and Antonioni's alter ego. Not that the actor is Timofeo, but as a director Castellitto gets to be his own alter ego. For all its gloss, this first directing effort doesn't show whether he has it in him to make a memorable movie. If he's going to, he may need to get a screenplay from somebody other than himself and his wife.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose is far less eventful than Castellitto's turbulent Don't Move . It begins with a situation: Jack, a dying man (Day-Lewis) lives with a beautiful teenage daughter named Rose (the radiant Camilla Belle) on a defunct island commune, where Jack owns the property through an inheritance. “As an experiment” and because his health condition may require more caretakers, Jack brings in a mature girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) with her two half-brother sons, one a skinny young cocksman, the other, a big, bright, plump boy who's sensitive, perhaps sexually confused. All this may be likely to lead to something, but the story is not rich in incident. The overripe warmth, bordering on the incestuous, between Jack and Rose, is like a loaded weapon that's never really fired.

Another hovering "situation" is an encroaching development of pseudo-colonial houses on the island which Jack amuses himself by sabotaging and threatening. The undramatic, conventional developer, played simply but very well by Beau Bridges, may be the most solid and real of the whole cast of characters.

There are weapons fired, things set fire to, bones broken, but The Ballad of Jack and Rose is more a mood piece than a chronicle of events and while the mood is strong enough to make you feel stuck on that island, it just sort of fizzles out. Yes, Day-Lewis is wonderful – and so, often, are the others: Belle is a strong, sure presence, and we get more inside her head than Jack's. Day-Lewis's Scottish accent is so well done it sometimes seems to be all that's happening.

Rebecca Miller likes to follow characters whose lives are spinning out of control (as in Personal Velocity ), and this time her movie is more like a whole, but it still doesn't go anywhere. A situation isn't a story. When there are so many dangerous implications, more of them need to be worked out.

It's obvious there's a coming of age element in Rose. Yet strong as Rose is in the movie, she seems to exist as a foil for Jack. And though Jack is the dominant figure it's never clear what he's about, or why we should be wasting so much of our time with him. A man so wrapped up in himself, who thinks all problems can be resolved by writing a check, is pretty tiresome to watch. Unless you're a diehard fan of failed hippy communes or of Daniel Day-Lewis, you shouldn't bother.

©2005 Chris Knipp
CineScene