Illuminata (1998)


(director/writer: John Turturro; screenwriter: based on the play by Brandon Cole; cinematographer: Harris Savides; editor: Michael Berenbaum; cast: Katherine Borowitz (Rachel), Beverly D’Angelo (Astergourd, theater owner), John Turturro (Tuccio), Christopher Walken (Bevalaqua, the critic), Ben Gazzara (Old Flavio, actor), Matthew Sussman (Piero), Bill Irwin (Marco, actor), Donal McCann (Pallenchio, theater owner), Susan Sarandon (Celimene, aging diva), Rufus Sewell (Dominique), Georgina Cates (Simone), Leo Bassi (Beppo, the clown), Aida Turturro (Marta), David Thornton (Orlandini); Runtime: 119; GreenStreet Films / Overseas Filmgroup; 1998)

“I can’t see a general audience taking to this strictly for the theater crowd film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Illuminata is set in New York City, at the turn of the twentieth century. A talented but struggling repertory troupe is doing a play by Giovanni Verga “Cavalleria Rusticana.” The resident-playwright Tuccio (Turturro) finds an opening to get his play onstage, as one of the actors in that play, Piero (Sussman), faints while in the middle of his performance. Tuccio immediately gets the troupe to perform his latest, but unfinished work, Illuminata. It is Turturro’s love message to the theater.

This play-within-a-film, much like Bullets Over Broadway or Shakespeare in Love, but not up to both of those film’s achievements, nevertheless, manages to develop a somewhat pleasing story line and some amusing comic moments. It offers an uneven drama, and is flawed by how easy it is to lose track of what is going on because there are too many characters to keep track of.

But there were two memorable performances, one by Katherine Borowitz and the other by Christopher Walken: Rachel (Katherine Borowitz-in real-life she is Mrs. Turturro) is the star of the show and the girlfriend of Tuccio. She has a real love for the playwright and for the theater, trying to figure out which love comes first. The second memorable performer is Umberto Bevalaqua (Walken), the detested theater critic, who plays the part of a fop, excessively showing his outrageous mannerisms. Umberto sports a frizzled hairstyle and to keep others at bay he uses an acerbic wit, sparing no one from his vanity and arrogance. A bad review from him, could destroy a play. Subsequently Umberto roasts Tuccio’s unfinished opus, telling him to rewrite the ending. It turns out that Umberto is interested in one of the minor performers, Marco (Irwin), who is encouraged by the other performers for the good of the play to see him and try to hold off his sexual advances by saying that he took a vow of chastity. The scene works as farce, and it gives the story some needed life. Umberto is regally courted by the theater owners, Astergourd (Beverly) and Pallenchio (Donal), who cater to his odd whims. When Walken is onscreen the film has movement and excitement, when he’s not the film just doesn’t hold up as well.

Life in the theater gets juxtaposed within the film; its story going back and forth with contrasting details, such as the latest gossip or romance, the vanity of the players, and the strange love they have for the theater. The love affairs of the actors onstage and off, becomes the whole purpose of the film. The main story is about the love affair between Rachel and Tuccio, who are constantly rehearsing this difficult play he wrote as they waver in their devotion for each other. Their romance outside the play mirrors their romance in the film, and one can therefore imply that it mirrors their real-life romance.

Susan Sarandon as Celimene is in a stereotypical role as an aging diva. She’s always looking for romance, as she tries to lure Tuccio. She easily handles this charming but not too difficult role. Georgina Cates is the ingenue, who has eyes for the attractive Dominique (Rufus Sewell). Aida Turturro, the real-life cousin of the director, plays a part that makes good use of her huge breasts. Her desires are for Pallenchio.

The play-within-the-film was overloaded with a flavor of Italian, therefore it seemed odd that the film was staged in New York and not in Milan.

I can’t see a general audience taking to this strictly for the theater crowd film; it is made mostly for those who love to know what goes on behind the scenes and those who are theater buffs. I applaud the effort and the originality of the film; but, as for what resulted, I thought it was an overstuffed production.