Dir: Silvio Soldini. It-Switz-UK. 2004. 123 mins.
With his 1999 comedy Bread And Tulips, Silvio Soldini pulled off the increasingly difficult act of combining auteurish pretensions (albeit gentle and soft-centred ones) with commercial success: the film racked up an impressive $5m-plus in its home market alone - around four times its budget.
Soldini's 2002 follow-up, the sombre angst-trip Brucio Nel Vento, was given a fairly lukewarm reception, though it was a solid and thoughtful piece of European arthouse cinema. With Agatha And The Storm, Soldini has returned to comedy, and to his Bread And Tulips muse, Neapolitan actress Licia Maglietta. And it is Maglietta, the sexy older woman of Italian cinema, who glues together this ramshackle but never less than original story of overlapping mid-life crises.
If it performs a shade less well than Bread And Tulips - it opened in Italy on Feb 27- then it will be because it lacks the Thelma & Louise feminist buzz that underpinned the rambling whimsy of that earlier film: in fact, it's difficult to extract much of a message at all from this colourful, well-crafted but ultimately rather insubstantial ensemble comedy, which demonstrates that (as Roberto Benigni once said) it is a strange and beautiful world, but doesn't seem too interested in how it got that way.
Co-screenwriter Dorianna Leondeff is an oasis in today's Italian script desert. Her collaborations with Soldini (the current one, co-written with the director and Francesco Piccolo, is her fourth) are character-led in the extreme: luckily, the characters in Agatha, beginning with the sensual, independent but jinxed heroine (who has an explosive effect on lightbulbs, including those in traffic lights), are likeable enough for us to turn a blind eye to the often bizarre meanders of the plot.
Agatha runs a bookshop in Genoa, a literary take on the record shop of High Fidelity, complete with odd customers and odder assistants. Agatha's brother Gustavo (Emilio Solfrizzi, a sort of Italian David Schwimmer) is a high-powered architect whose yuppie self-assurance begins to crumble when he discovers that he is the adopted son of a peasant family from the marshy Po Valley lowlands.
The discovery comes bundled with a brother, Romeo (a fine performance, on the cusp between character and caricature, by Giuseppe Battiston, who was the shambling private detective in Bread And Tulips), whose bulky frame and bad taste in suits does not prevent him from making conquests of women wherever he goes.
And yet Romeo is faithful, in his own chronically unfaithful way, to his disabled wife Daria, and loyal to his new-found brother too - especially when he discovers that he has such a maturely seductive sister.
Soldini's real achievement in Agatha is to keep us grinning through the longueurs (such is the charm of the exercise, and the radiance of Maglietta's smile), and to evoke (as in Bread And Tulips) a hyper-real version of Italy which owes something to golden-age Hollywood musicals.
Romeo drives a mustard-yellow Volvo, and lives in a house with skyblue shuttters, which is guarded by two huge sentry-chickens. Maglietta changes her get-up almost as often as Maggie Cheung in In the Mood For Love; but if costume changes there signified a kind of elegant untouchability, the exuberant wardrobe that spreads like a rash from Romeo to all the other characters here acts as a manifesto for the non-conformist life of the imagination which is pushed, in one way or another, in all of Soldini's films.
And when the plot gets too silly (as when a lovestruck Danish mayor, played by Ann Eleonora Jorgensen in a rather pointless reprise of her Italian For Beginners role, turns up in search of Gustavo, whose own wife has conveniently left him), there are some satisfying technical consolations to fall back on: those costumes (courtesy of Silvia Nebiolo), Paola Bizzari's equally colourful production design, Arnaldo Catinari's warm, flamboyant photography, and the Balkan- and Arab-tinged jazz waltzes and tangos of Giovanni Venosta's soundtrack.
Bread And Tulips was presented abroad as a gentle, quirky comedy for cinemagoing Italophiles. With its weaker narrative bite and without the international calling cards of Bruno Ganz or Bread And Tulip's instantly recognisable Venetian setting, Agatha And The Storm is less likely to stir the same interest.
Prod co: Albachiara
Co-prod cos: Lumiere & Co, TSI, Amka Films, Mercury Film Productions
Int'l sales: Adriana Chiesa Enterprises
It dist: Mikado
Prods: Luigi Musini, Roberto Cicutto, Tiziana Soudani
Scr: Dorianna Leondeff, Francesco Piccolo, Silvio Soldini
Cine: Arnaldo Catinari
Prod des: Paola Bizzarri
Ed: Carlotta Cristiani
Mus: Giovanni Venosta
Main cast: Licia Maglietta, Giuseppe Battiston, Emilio Solfrizzi, Claudio Santamaria, Marina Massironi, Giselda Volodi, Monica Nappo, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen