Dir: Renzo Martinelli. Italy/France. 2001. 116 mins.
Vajont is an all-European disaster movie. Although it's tempting to shuffle the word-order, producer-director Renzo Martinelli's $8.2 million production is not an all-European movie disaster: it's just a mediocre example of the genre. Although it boasts a couple of French co-stars (Daniel Auteil and Philippe Noiret), a throaty operatic soundtrack by Andrea Bocelli and some heavily-touted digital special effects, Vajont looks too stultifyingly conventional even for the popcorn brigade. It has so far failed to make any real impact on the box office in Italy (where the story is set), taking $1.3m after three weeks from 79 screens, and is unlikely to fare better anywhere else. However, with its small-screen values the film should recoup some of its considerable budget through video sales and TV rights.
The film centres on the terrible events of 8 October 1963, when a huge mass of water swept down a narrow valley in the Italian Dolomites, destroying several villages and an entire town, Longarone. A landslide had fallen into the artificial lake behind the recently-constructed Vajont dam and created an effect rather like dropping a boulder into a full bathtub. The floodwave leapt over the dam itself, leaving it intact, and went on to claim 2,000 lives downvalley. By far the best thing about Vajont the film was the dramatic irony of its premiere, in what is left of Vajont the village: it was projected onto the dam wall.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, it emerged that the engineering firm responsible for building the dam had deliberately played down the reports of geologists alarmed by the instability of the mountain that overlooked the reservoir. Local journalist Tina Merlin had long campaigned against the dam and warned of its dangers; and it is Merlin's investigative book on the subject that provides the springboard for Martinelli's polarised view of history, with the bad engineers who live down in decadent Venice (Auteuil, Noiret) pitted against the simple but stubborn mountain folk.
Theatrical actor-director Marco Paolini had already used the material in a bitingly effective dramatic monologue that achieved unprecedented viewing figures when it was broadcast on Raidue in 1999 - raising hopes that this was a bankable theme. But Martinelli spends too much time trying to get the commercial formula right to convince us that this is a credible j'accuse. And, paradoxically, in forfeiting raw-edged passion for the production values of a pasta advert, the director gets the commercial formula wrong; Italian audiences have never responded well to local attempts at Hollywood schmaltz - unless Roberto Benigni is involved.
Laura Morante, as the campaigning journalist, struggles bravely with a corny script, and Jorge Perugorria and Anita Caprioli do their best to hold up the contractual love plot. But the film is let down by poor direction of the minor players, who too often come on as theatre workshop caricatures, and its lack of character development. The special effects - walls of water, underwater fractures - are a bit thin for demanding modern audiences, and are compromised by incoherent editing in the final flood scene. Vajont, in the end, provides some of the requisite disaster-movie catharsis. But like the photography, the effect is washed-out, its colours diluted.
Prod co: Martinelli Film Company International
Co prod: Rai Cinema, Sdp Films, Les Productions Bagheera
Int'l sales: 01 Distribution
Prod: Renzo Martinelli
Scr: Martinelli, Pietro Calderoni
Cinematography: Blasco Giurato
Prod des: Francesco Frigeri
Ed: Massimo Quaglia
Music: Francesco Sartori
Main cast: Michel Serrault, Daniel Auteuil, Laura Morante, Jorge Perugorria, Anita Caprioli, Leo Gullotta