Named after a South American alligator but used here to refer to Italy's controversial prime minister, helmer Nanni Moretti's long-awaited "The Caiman" combines entertaining comedy with an electrifying critique of Silvio Berlusconi. However, the multi-layered script is often disjointed and struggles to interweave the personal and political sides of Moretti's cinematic projections, resulting in a film that's by turns funny, sublime, frustrating and rousing. Its release in 380 prints a strategic three weeks before the national elections should ensure impressive initial votes at the box office, though a landslide looks unlikely, especially as cult actor-director Moretti barely appears in the film.
Viewers who get caught up in the pic's wicked spoof on Berlusconi (variously played by Elio De Capitani, Michele Placido and Moretti himself) are more likely to be frustrated with the film than those following the story of neurotic film producer Bruno (Silvio Orlando, Moretti's favorite alter ego), whose marriage is breaking up.
However, the fact that only about a third of the story is devoted to Berlusconi should reassure offshore buyers that should he lose the upcoming April elections, the film won't immediately become dated.
Pic is the first Italian feature to attack the prime minister directly. His two terms in office have been marred by accusations that his original start-up capital came from the mafia and that he exported money illegally, bribed judges and politicians, evaded taxes, and sank the level of Italian television to a new low. Moretti puts all these issues on the table, forcefully and originally, by having them acted out in a film-within-the-film that itself deserves a place in the annals of Italian cinema.
A witty opener shows Moretti's acute sense of film and politics as part of the showbiz continuum. Paola (Margherita Buy) is shown playing a Marxist-Leninist extremist in an improbable action movie from the '70s called "Cataracts." Many years later, she's retired from acting and is separating from husband Bruno.
Bruno sleeps in his production office and frantically tries to patch up his marriage while the bank closes in on his business. When the film he's working on falls through, he takes on the script of a young single mother, Teresa (Jasmine Trinca, sunnily intelligent), without having read it.
Her film turns out to be a full-frontal attack on Berlusconi called "The Caiman." (Term is an invention by Moretti, and is not a common nickname for Berlusconi.) Unsurprisingly, the pic's turned down by state broadcaster RAI, but Bruno persuades a Polish magnate (Jerzy Stuhr) to invest, on condition famous actor Marco Pulici (Placido) plays the lead.
These scenes offer a fascinating, only slightly exaggerated glimpse into the scruffy world of Roman filmmaking, and the comedy flows like smooth whisky. Less successful is the intercutting of these filmmaking scenes with Bruno's ongoing angst over leaving his wife and cute sons, which strongly recalls Moretti's drama "The Son's Room." Though here the key is comic, there's even more of a sense of a personal psychodrama taking center stage. (Helmer actually separated from his own wife and son while shooting that earlier movie.)
Orlando brings nuance to the main role, as well as several comic high notes in which he acts out Bruno's emotional immaturity. Buy is simpatico as the wife.
Story returns to its political concerns in a stirring closing scene, with Berlusconi now played by Moretti, in a chilling, cold-blooded perf. Emotions are heightened by a full-blooded score from composer Franco Piersanti and Arnaldo Catinari's controlled but never banal lighting.
Film buffs will delight in the procession of Italian directors who flash by in cameos, as well as salutes to helmers Federico Fellini and Hayao Miyazaki. Newsreel footage of Berlusconi appearing at his most tasteless before the European Parliament is a jewel.
Camera (color), Arnaldo Catinari; editor, Esmeralda Calabria; music, Franco Piersanti; art director, Giancarlo Basili; costume designer, Lina Nerli Taviani; sound (Dolby Digital), Alessandro Zanon; assistant director, Loredana Conte. Reviewed at Barberini, Rome, March 23, 2006. Running time: 112 MIN.
With: Antonio Catania, Valerio Mastrandrea, Toni Bertorelli, Anna Bonaiuto, Giuliano Montaldo, Tatti Sanguineti, Paolo Virzi, Paolo Sorrentino, Dario Cantarelli, Carlo Mazzacurati, Cecilia Dazzi, Daniele Rampello, Giacomo Passarelli.