The future of a wealthy Italian family is up in the air after they're forced to sell their home. Valeria runi-Tedeschi plays a former actress who is desperate for a child, and who faces a series of personal crises in the course of a year.

 

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Rambling family saga lacks solid foundation

The title might suggest a picturesque touristic fantasy, but make no mistake: the sun rarely shines in this oddly gloomy tale of a dwindling once-wealthy Italian family who are now forced to sell off the family pile (more of a depressing stone house than a castle) and its assorted famous paintings, including a priceless Breughel. They also grapple with AIDS, childlessness and a lack of gainful employment. It’s serious stuff, leavened with a strange mismatched love story and some frantic madcap humour that occasionally works to elicit a giggle, but mostly doesn’t.

Loosely autobiographical, A Castle in Italy is co-written and directed by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Actresses, It’s Easier for a Camel), who also stars in the central role. She plays Louise, a scatty 43-year-old woman, fond of wearing flappy skirts and fluffy boots, who is running out of time to find love and have children. Her beloved brother Ludovic (Filippo Timi) is slowly succumbing to AIDS-related illness, and their beleaguered mother (played by Bruni Tedeschi’s real mother, the concert pianist and sometime actor Marisa Borini) is grappling with the financial realities of the impoverished estate.

Louise, who seems to run and fall throughout the film, drops a rosary on a country path near the castle, and as she’s searching for it, she runs into Nathan (Louis Garrel). In his 20s, with floppy hair and the solemn big-nosed, brown-eyed handsomeness of a young Jean Pierre Leaud, Nathan is an actor taking a break from filming a suicide scene down the road (one of the funniest moments in the film). Nathan remembers Louise from her long-ago acting career, and pursues her romantically back in Paris. A stop-start love affair ensues, hampered by the fact that she’s desperate for children while he just wants to have fun. The nature of this attraction is never fully convincing (despite the fact that Bruni Tedeschi and Garrel were real life lovers for some years) though the fact that both characters want to escape the indignities of the acting profession makes for some half-realised moments of compatibility and understanding.

Puzzlingly nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2013, the best that can be said about A Castle in Italy is that it replicates the confused tone of real life. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants us to feel or think about the people it presents. Examples include the scene in which the two adult siblings, who are fond of play-fighting and kissing on the lips, giggle childishly as the accountant outlines their serious situation and the need to sell the castle. Perhaps we’re supposed to feel sorry for them as they wonder how they’ll continue to pay for their butlers and drivers – for the film is unapologetic about the fact that even the rich suffer – yet these two supposedly sympathetic  characters seem merely spoilt and witless. Similarly, their drunken friend (Xavier Beauvois) who hangs around the fringes of the story is presented as a fearless truth-teller, yet he comes across as simply obnoxious and grasping.

Set over three chilly-looking seasons – autumn, winter and spring – the cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie (frequent Ozon collaborator and also cinematographer of Bruni Tedeschi’s other two films) draws as much light and beauty as possible from the melancholy and exhausted European settings and characters. Adding to this strangely giddy and never-quite-tragic tone is a soundtrack heavy with classical piano as well as the jarringly ‘off’ Cole Porter song ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy.’ A final note of dissonant incongruousness plays out over the credits: Rita Pavone’s manic  ’60s hit ‘Viva la pappa col pomodoro’ sung and danced with loud and boyish bravado. One can only guess why.