The problems of nine little people don't amount to a hill of beans in Italo-Turkish director Ferzan Ozpetek's latest offering, Saturno Contro. Billed as a melancholy generational comedy, this occasionally affecting - but dramatically inert - feature deals with a close-knit circle of thirty- and fortysomething Roman friends whose mid-life crises are highlighted, in different ways, by a death within the group.
Though it's far more watchable than Ozpetek's last, the slushy mystic melodrama Sacred Heart, Saturno Contro seems tainted by the same mid-life miasma that it aspires to describe. (The title refers to the opposition of Saturn - a period of stasis and stocktaking, according to astrologers).
In returning to the everyday themes of his successful third and fourth features Ignorant Fairies ($10m at the Italian box office) and Facing Windows ($14m), Ozpetek and regular scriptwriting partner (and co-producer) Gianni Romolo must be hoping to win back some of the public consensus lost by Sacred Heart, which limped to just over $3 million in 2004/5.
The name cast, with its smattering of TV talent (former dancing starlet Ambra Angiolini, former Big Brother contestant Luca Argentero) will help a little. But with its ultimately forgettable characters and lack of dramatic or social urgency, Saturno Contro looks destined to fade fast after the robust opening which is more or less guaranteed by Medusa's wide 430-print rollout on Feb 23.
Overseas, Saturno Contro is unlikely to repeat even the succes d'estime of Ignorant Fairies or Facing Windows, though it may see some action in specialist gay & lesbian festivals.
One thing the openly gay Ozpetek has always done well is to depict same-sex unions in an unstrident, naturalistic register which is still almost unique in Italian cinema. The couple at the centre of Saturno Contro, novelist Davide (Pierfrancesco Favino, recently introduced to international audiences by A Night At The Museum) and his more business-oriented boyfriend, Lorenzo (Argentero), seem almost a manifesto for the alternative family units which have been in the news in Italy recently, in a civil-union tussle that has pitted the government against the Vatican.
The friends that coalesce around the gay couple's apartment in the upcoming Ostiense district of Rome include banker Antonio (Accorsi), his psychotherapist wife Angelica (Buy), and insecure cokehead Roberta (Angiolini).
Antonio is having an affair, Roberta is doing too many drugs, and Lorenzo is forced to ask Antonio for an under-the-counter loan in order to pay some backhanders. None of these plot springs really go anywhere, however; swept up by the tragedy that kicks in at the end of act one, the friends do a lot of sitting around in hospital corridors, united by moody silences that want to mean more than they do.
It all feels a little like a quality TV soap writer's take on an existential drama à la Antonioni. A few scenes stand out from the grey background, but overall there is little to hold an audience's interest through to the limp finale.
Ozpetek and regular DoP Gianfilippo Corticelli commit once again to CinemaScope, but the ultra-wide ratio is rarely exploited as inventively as it was, say, in Facing Windows (one of the exceptions is the scene in which Antonio confesses his infidelity to his wife, where the camera plays neatly with emotional and physical distances).
The stand-alone soundtrack sees Italian singer Neffa - who began his career as a hip-hop rapper - in unexpectedly melodic mode: but this factor will have commercial leverage only in the local arena.
Giovanni Pellino ('Neffa')