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Kiss of the Spider

[whitespace] Chiara Torelli
Down on the farm: Chiara Torelli plays an Italian farm girl torn between the love of a stranger and duty to her family in Pizzicata.

'Pizzicata' kicks off new year at SFI

By Patrick Sullivan

TWO FILMS WRESTLE with each other beneath the supple skin of Pizzicata. On the one hand, the 1996 movie from Italian director Edoardo Winspeare--which kicks off the Sonoma Film Institute's 2000 season--is a carefully composed, beautifully photographed quasi-documentary, a fascinating exploration of life as it was lived by Italian peasants in the Salento region of southern Italy circa World War II.

But Pizzicata is also a love story, a tale of a stranger who plunges (literally) into the heart of a tight-knit rural community and then falls for the wrong girl with tragic results.

Of course, star-crossed lovers have haunted Italy since a certain Montague expressed his passion beneath a moon-lit balcony in fair Verona, but classic themes bear repeating, as long as the storyteller has something new to say about them. Unfortunately, in Pizzicata, passion often fights so hard with ethnology that neither emerges a clear winner.

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Fabio Frascaro plays an Italian-American fighter pilot named Tony whose plane is shot down over the Salentino peninsula--the heel of Italy's "boot"--in 1943. After the wounded airman is discovered hanging in the branches of a tree by the youngest daughter of the Pantaleo family, the clan's tough old patriarch, Carmine (played by Cosimo Cinieri, the only professional actor in the cast), makes the fateful decision to harbor the wounded American on the family farm.

Frascaro, who looks less as if he's taken a nasty fall from a crashing airplane than as if he's jumped off the lush cover of a fashion magazine, seems to fit seamlessly into his new home--at first. As an emigrant, he speaks the language, and he manages to impersonate a cousin of the Pantaleo family so that he can move freely around the village.

But a mutual and passionate attraction quickly develops between the pilot and the family's middle daughter, Cosima, an independent-minded young woman played by the lovely Chiara Torelli, whose model's cheekbones and beautiful smile make her seem a perfect match for the handsome Frascaro. Indeed, wartime food shortages and other hardships haven't hurt the appearance of any of the many beautiful people who inhabit this film.

The problem is that Cosima's hand has already been promised to the local rich kid, Pasquale (Paolo Massafra), whose father's wealth and power have enabled him to dodge the draft that has otherwise virtually emptied the village of young men. Pasquale, the son of Don Pippi, is accustomed to getting what he wants, and he's not about to let some stranger walk off with Cosima. Moreover, since Don Pippi's money makes him the only olive buyer in town, Carmine is under financial pressure not to allow his daughter to marry the man she really desires.

So the stage is set for romance and conflict. Or is it? Alas, though Winspeare has all the right plot elements, he doesn't seem to know how to make the puzzle of passion fit together.

The director, whose past accomplishments include six documentaries, spends so much time setting up his carefully framed shots that he doesn't give any romantic sparks the chance to ignite. We know that Cosima and Tony are physically beautiful because the camera lingers long on their forms and faces, but we learn almost nothing about their personalities or why they're so deeply attracted to each other. The film's measured pace and elliptical style make the abrupt conclusion of this love triangle all the more jarring.

As a love story, then, Pizzicata falls short. But as a visually stimulating exploration of the rural culture of southern Italy--the dances, the church services, the hard work, the deep-seated sexism, and strong family ties--the film is often fascinating.

Indeed, Pizzicata is worth seeing simply for the director's compelling exploration of the pizzicata tarantata (from which the film's title is derived), a manic dance performed by women who fall into a hypnotic trance and thrash about frantically for days, supposedly because they've been bitten by a spider. The true cause of this strange malady, apparently, is a hysteria caused by the culture's harsh sexism and deep-seated repression--themes that Winspeare was clearly trying to explore through fiction in the movie.

Unfortunately, as a storyteller, Winspeare makes a great documentarian. Next time out, perhaps he'll leave the romance to Shakespeare.


Catch the North Bay premiere of 'Pizzicata' on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 7 and 8, at 7 p.m. at Sonoma State University's Darwin Hall, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Tickets are $4. For more information, call 664-2606.

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From the January 6-12, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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