Movies hold a special, sentimental place in Giuseppe Tornatore's heart. His second feature, 1988's Cinema Paradiso, was the loving counterpoint to more somber films like The Last Picture Show. By providing escape from the dangers and despair of rural living in post-war Italy, moviegoing served two functions: one as entertainment, the other as therapy.
The escapist fantasy movies offered wasn't just a way for villagers to remove themselves from the drudgery of life; it was also a means of helping them cope with their daily existence, giving them something to look forward to and dream about. The weekly journey to the cinema was as much a mental necessity as it was a social activity. It united the community behind a common purpose at a time when the political winds of the nation were depressing and unpredictable.
In The Star Maker, Tornatore's newest film, you only see people actually attending a movie once, and they are walking out, complaining to the manager about how bad it was. Like Cinema Paradiso, The Star Maker is nonetheless about movies and the power of optimism they can provide. "Come back tomorrow, a good one is opening," the manager shouts back to the disgruntled patrons. You know they'll return, because the promise of greatness, of being transported to a new and better place, is too strong to resist. Tornatore captures that compulsive hopefulness with a no-nonsense beauty that is redemptive yet brutally tragic.
In 1953, Joe Morelli (Sergio Castellitto) stumbles upon a racket of enviable cleverness and revolting cynicism. Joe drives among the provincial towns of Sicily in his poster-covered truck with his loudspeaker roaring, inviting the destitute, nave residents to sit for a screen test. With the energy and appeal of a carnival barker, he convinces his victims to pose, read a passage from Gone with the Wind, and speak about their lives--all in exchange for 1,500 lire, a small fortune to the poor villagers. Spurred on by the promise of having their auditions exposed to the great Italian directors of the day (De Sica, Visconti, Fellini)--and thereby escaping their boring little lives--sucker after pitiable sucker takes whatever steps necessary to raise money to pay for the test. Ignorant of the scam, they proceed to spend 10 minutes staring blankly into a camera, speaking to a roll of film stock that has no chance of ever being developed, not to mention watched, by film industry honchos.
There can be no doubt that Joe is a detestable slug who leaves behind him a slimy trail of fraud and deception, and one of the fascinating facts about The Star Maker is just how long Tornatore resists softening Joe. The character's very detachment is seductive in a ghoulish, ugly way; you aren't repulsed by his thoughtless cruelty, but compelled by it, like looking at a freak in a sideshow.
Still, the depth of Joe's steeliness is almost unbelievable. An endless parade of needy people confess their secret desires and vent their frustrations to him, as if for the first time, and most do so with the faith that their thoughts will eventually be heard. Incredibly, no matter how painfully honest or desperate his patrons might be, Joe remains unaffected by them: by the woman who sleeps with him to give her daughter the break she never had; by the mute war veteran who speaks his first words in a decade to an empty camera; even by the doctor, as selfish as Joe, who visits a dying man only so that he can sign the death certificate and get paid. Joe is a snake-oil salesman of the creepiest kind, a soulless parasite who traffics with despicable coldness in the expectations of sweet-natured fools.
If Joe litters his wake with the human suffering caused by his greedy, heartless manipulations, he also manages (however unintentionally) to stir up some dreams along the way. Joe is successful at what he does because he has elevated ego-stroking to an art. The unexpected consequence of his plan is that he gives a voice to the voiceless masses. (Since few characters are given names--they're identified only as "mute," or "flirtation client," or "shepherd"--they take on the characteristics of archetypes, so Tornatore, like Joe himself, conveys a simple universality about their dilemmas.) As it becomes more obvious that many of the people never expect their screen tests to result in film jobs, Tornatore seems to suggest that it is merely the opportunity to speak their piece that motivates them. The hustler from Rome offers them a taste of immortality, and they hungrily devour it.
If Tornatore ever tried to imply that Joe's acts were selflessly motivated, that he considered himself a modern variation of Robin Hood, the film might not be so powerful, and Castellitto's performance might be less memorable. The character's resistance to redemption makes him equal parts loathsome and enigmatic. Early in the film, neither the screenplay nor Castellitto's appropriately lascivious performance hints at just how profound Joe's contempt for the people he's bilking truly runs. It is only late in the film, well after the virginal Beata (Tiziana Lodato) befriends him, that his veneer of coldness begins to melt away, but even then the reason for his transformation is left somewhat ambiguous. (Beata is not the first woman to pledge her devotion to him, so it's not clear why he thinks she should be the last.) The complexities of the character resist pigeonholing.
Structurally, The Star Maker owes some debt to other movies. It resembles The Wizard of Oz, for example, in that it shows how people exert too much effort searching for what they already have inside. Accordingly, the same peasants who should feel betrayed by Joe instead admire him; they each find courage or comfort in themselves that the simple act of self-reflection brought out. With his fake film camera and wild stories of success, Joe is a dream merchant, and all a dream needs to blossom is someone to hold out hope for it.
In the same way that the farmers in Sommersby (an English-language remake of the French film The Return of Martin Guerre) willingly assented to the fiction of a charlatan's identity because the lie possessed a deeper meaning than the literal truth, so the villagers in The Star Maker permit themselves to buy into Joe's fakery, not for his benefit but for theirs: His lie, like the lie that is the flickering image of film itself, ennobles them.
Although The Star Maker is significantly more hard-edged than Cinema Paradiso, Tornatore softens the fabric of his cynicism with a sense of joyfulness in the villagers. Despite the pain he intentionally inflicts, Joe is the tragic character here. When he realizes how cruel he has been, a constant stream of images of people he swindled comes flooding back, images of a wasted life that cannot be recovered. You know Joe will never be able to escape his own memories, and there's a sad power in his predicament: The dream merchant has been condemned to be haunted by nightmares.
The Star Maker. Miramax Films. Sergio Castellitto, Tiziana Lodato. Written by Fabio Renaud and Giuseppe Tornatore. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Opens March 15.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.