Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

The Last Pulcinella: watching Massimo Ranieri fall between two stools

The film L’Ultimo Pulcinella was screened at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Paris on February 8, 2010 and was heartily welcomed by the very indulgent audience of Italo-philes. However, if this film is going to make it outside of the most uncritically sympathetic audiences it will need a lot of luck. The director, Maurizio Scaparro, was at the screening and he said in the introductory remarks that the film is based on a scenario by Roberto Rossellini, a script that was unfilmable because of the odd juxtaposition of plot elements, one day in Naples, next day in Paris. He was determined to see Massimo Ranieri in the lead role, and he eventually decided to adapt the story to modern circumstances. It is an interesting and fruitful exercise, however, the problems with the script are still quite evident, and may have even been exacerbated by the adaptation. What results is a film that is not really neo-realism, nor is it musical theater, but rather something lost in between.

Massimo Ranieri

The Last Pulcinella stars Massimo Ranieri, the renowned Italian singer and actor. His early fame in the 1960s was with pop songs in the style of San Remo, where he twice won the top prize. In the 1970s he started in a new direction with his album entitled ‘O Surdato Nammurato” a live recording of one of his theatrical performances of Neapolitan sketches. This album, with its cover photo of him dressed in the white pajama costume of Pulcinella, has become a classic and it established the future trajectory of his career. Today he is best known as an interpreter the classic Neapolitan repertoire, and he has come out with several more collections of Neapolitan standards, the latest one in 2009. Many of these songs are over one hundred years old and they have been interpreted over and over again by innumerable singers from the most talented to the ridiculous. His renditions are superb, as he uses his clear and sharp voice to bring out the bel canto qualities of these songs, while at the same time making them enjoyable for the modern ear. In this film Ranieri plays a custom made role, as Michelangelo, a Neapolitan actor who performs Pulcinella. His voice and abilities are as breathtaking as ever, but alas, the years have erased Michelangelo’s youthful good looks. This does not stop him, though, and he continues to evolve and when he arrives in working class Paris in search of his missing son, he wants to bring the theatrical traditions to a new generation of performers. Ranieri’s Pulcinella performances in the film are wonderful. His ability to become the Commedia dell’Arte character has been perfected over a long career and this shows. Unfortunately, it is not enough to make the film palatable.

One glaring problem is the lack of veracity. There are plot twists and little conflict-resolutions throughout that conveniently fall from the sky without rhyme or reason. All of the points of tension: Michelangelo’s son’s escape from Naples, the suspicions of the elderly actress toward the immigrant neighbors, and especially the belligerence of the police force and the glimpses of police brutality, are dangled for a moment in front of our eyes, then blithely forgotten. The discovery of an empty theater just waiting for the protagonist to arrive, and the impressive artistic talent of all the neighborhood characters who just happen to saunter in, are elements that would work fine in a Broadway musical, where the audience doesn’t really care about all the niceties of logic – just get to the music, but they are absolutely insulting to the intelligence of someone watching a film that is supposed to be “realism.” This story calls on Deus ex Machina contrivances so often that it hardly seems worth it for Deus ever to climb back into his Machina, God might as well just hang around on the set so that he’ll be right there for his cue. Or better yet, cut out all the stillborn subplots and concentrate on the performers. The plot would be tolerable if it led to music, for instance, something for the Colombina character (Margot Dufrene) to sing in explanation of her sudden infatuation with Francesco, played by a severely underutilized Domenico Balsamo. The story is a variation of the old “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” formula from 1940s Hollywood, and as such calls out pitifully for big finale performance, which never materializes. How about letting Francesco or one of the other young males share the Pulcinella character with Ranieri to demonstrate how this tradition will be passed on to the next generation. Massimo Ranieri, also at the screening, said that he saw a bit of Pulcinella in all of the immigrant youths. Unfortunately, this never comes across in the film.

The Last Pulcinella needs to decide what it is: a story about the problems of multiethnic youths in the housing projects of the modern European metropolis, or a celebration of the blending of traditional European (here Neapolitan) art and the arts of the newcomers. I think it is clear that given the talent of Ranieri and all the young actors, the second option is the one that holds the most promise, and the scene in which Ranieri performs a classic song to African accompaniment should erase any doubts. And incidentally, there was no need to come all the way to Paris North to find racial intolerance, police brutality and frustrated, unemployed African youths with talent – they could have found all that by the truckloads right back home in Naples. Perhaps it is too late to save the film, but it is never too late for the stage. Could this someday make a successful stage musical? It is one that I would love to see.



February 9, 2010 - Posted by | cinema, music, theater | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] The Last Pulcinella […]

    Pingback by Music and Naples and John Turturro. « Dominic Ambrose Blogblot | September 3, 2011 | Reply

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