1998, R, 111 min. Directed by John Turturro. Starring John Turturro, Katherine Borowitz, Christopher Walken, Susan Sarandon, Beverly D'Angelo, Bill Irwin, Rufus Sewell, Georgina Cates, Ben Gazzara.
REVIEWED By Sarah Hepola, Fri., Aug. 20, 1999
“It's a slender curtain between theatre and life,” blurts Celemene (Sarandon), as she flops to the floor and clutches Tuccio's (Turturro) leg. Centuries after Shakespeare penned his “life is but a poor player” speech, director Turturro adds another drop into the bucket of the-world-is-a-stage dramas with this often elegant, at times frustratingly uneven, comedy that is hopelessly in love with theatre, poetry, and -- for once -- marriage. Turturro plays Tuccio, a struggling playwright in turn-of-the-century New York, whose latest creation, Illuminata, is shelved by his repertory company in favor of the popular Cavalleria Rusticana. But when anxious amateur Piero (Matthew Sussman) collapses during a performance, the frustrated Tuccio manipulates the crisis moment to assure that Illuminata gets a full performance. Stark and entrancing, the play is a gorgeously staged tale of one man's infidelity and the wife who eventually forgives him. But Turturro, along with co-screenwriter Brandon Cole (who also co-wrote Turturro's directorial debut, 1992's Mac), uses this play as a counterpoint to the more pressing drama unfolding in the lives of its company members that, not surprisingly, parallels the story told onstage. Bursting with eccentric characters and raucous sexual exploits, Illuminata is also a farce of sorts, although that's the least successful aspect of the film. Supporting characters -- including Sarandon, as a crumbling stage diva, and Christopher Walken, as a queenie old theatre critic -- seem like toss-offs, and fittingly, their storylines are distractions undercutting the film's momentum. What Illuminata does succeed at, however, is in the articulation of the tender, imperfect love between a man and a woman. Borowitz, as Tuccio's lover and leading lady (and Turturro's real-life wife), is a rare kind of film actress. The austere, raven-maned beauty looks like she should be playing Medea somewhere, and while her poise and understated delivery make her at first appear flat, especially contrasted with the supporting cast's hamminess, the actress conveys more with her imploring eyes and a small, shuddering breath than others can with tomes of David E. Kelley dialogue. The gushing poetry of Illuminata is further served by the lustrous cinematography of Harris Savides (The Game), who steeps every shot with a sensuous, almost indulgent, palette. It is almost inevitable that Illuminata will be compared unfavorably to the enormously popular Shakespeare in Love, but Turturro's film is not nearly as wry or slick, and purposefully eschews such conventions as two stunning leads and a neatly packaged ending. Instead, both films capture our imagination because they manage what Shakespeare's rustics struggled to accomplish on another midsummer's night: to bring moonlight into the theatre.