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ILLUMINATA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Turturro, Katherine Borowitz, Susan Sarandon, Rufus Sewell, Christopher Walken
Director:  John Turturro
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  111 Minutes
Release Date:  January 18, 2000

Film **

Illuminata starts off like a new version of Day For Night, but using the theatre as a backdrop rather than the movies, with a touch of Fellini’s broad and colorful characterizations thrown in.  It ends on quite a strong, redeeming note.  The problem is, most of what’s in between, though pretty to look at, is basically empty and shallow, without much to say, and not nearly living up to its initial promise.

The film is largely the work of John Turturro, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced it, in addition to starring in it.  He claims his intention was to pay tribute to the theatrical life, and what it’s like for those who live, breathe, and eat theatre.  It’s a terrific idea for a film, but he seemed to get hopelessly sidetracked along the way, and ended up with a bawdy sex farce that seems to delight in characters using profanity, make strong sexual references, and gratuitously stripping nude for the camera.  It becomes a ridiculous mess of who’s sleeping with who, and who even cares.

The problem is, the characters are not drawn with enough dimension to give them much of an agenda for why they do what they do.  At the heart of the story is the playwright (Turturro) who finally gets his chance to have a play produced when an actor collapses during an evening performance, leaving the cast and crew with no other show.  They run through his work, “Illuminata”, before a befuddled audience and a caustic drama critic (Walken, who has the film’s best role).  They weren’t really prepared for it, and the play wasn’t even finished, so naturally, it failed to garner an enthusiastic response.

Plotwise, the rest of story revolves around whether or not the play will get another performance, but in the meantime, all the theatrical clichés abound, including the aging one-time prima donna (Sarandon), the egoist actor trying to make his comeback (Sewell), the theatre owner less interested in art than in money (Beverly D’Angelo), and so on.  Despite a good cast, none of the characters are well conceived, and none have an ounce of depth to them.  Which is probably why there’s not much hope of them holding our interest except in going for the crude bits of humor.  And sex.  Lots of sex.

In the end, we see the finalized version of the play, and its last act is also the last act of the film.  It is a wonderful, enchanting moment, and as they both end, the film lets its cast do curtain calls, bowing and smiling for the camera.  In the last few minutes, the movie seems to find the track again and end on a delightful, if not particularly meaningful, note. 

As a period piece, the picture looks great.  The lighting, costuming and art design are all well done, and the film achieves an authentic and satisfying look.  It’s almost sad, because the movie’s appearance is so much more interesting than the people or the story.

John Turturro had a good concept to begin with, but it feels like at some point the movie started dictating the writers, instead of vice versa.  With a more focused script, and characters that have a little more substance to them, I wouldn’t object to seeing him try his hand at another film, provided he’s learned from his mistakes here.

Video ***

Though apparently not an anamorphically enhanced transfer, there is little to complain about in this offering from Artisan.  As a period piece, it’s photographed largely in natural light, which usually translates to graininess, but with only a couple of exceptions, that’s not the case here.  Notice an early scene where a large, empty stage is lit only by a single candle in the center.  The results are beautiful.  And throughout the disc, the lighting is expertly used for dramatic effect, and images remain sharp and clear, with a broad range of beautifully rendered colors.  In other words, this film is as pretty as any period piece you could see, and it looks quite good on DVD. 

Audio **

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, but is a rather flat, unremarkable mix of mostly dialogue and bits of renaissance style music.  As with most 2 channel surround mixes, there's very little action taking place on the rear stage, but a fairly good spread of audio between the front left and right speakers.  All in all, no real complaints or compliments.

Features ***

The disc contains a commentary track by John Turturro and son, a trailer, cast and crew info, production notes, and some additional scenes.

Summary:

Illuminata comes across as a film that couldn’t decide between being a sex farce and a smart, period based comedy, and the resulting identity crisis lowers the overall effect of the film.  The beginning is good, the ending is better, but when the middle hour and a half equates to nothing interesting, then no attractive bookend pieces can salvage the movie.