Maurizio Nichetti's "The Icicle Thief," opening today at the Charles, gets at that persistently dislocating quality of movie life: namely, where do movies exist?
Do they exist on a screen, where they are mere projections of light through spinning celluloid, and their sense of movement, drama and life is entirely an illusion? Do they exist on a television screen, where, butchered, shrunken and interrupted, they play out at approximately one-tenth the scale their creators imagined? Or, do they exist really in the mind, where, over the years, they ripen with meaning, take on mythological proportion, and speak more urgently to the subconscious than any comparable form?
Nichetti's exploration of these possibilities takes the form of a hip, clever, movie-savvy, self-aware quasi-parody. He casts himself, under his own name, as an earnest, if clumsy young filmmaker who's cranked out a laborious tribute to the Italian cinema's glory days of Neo-Realism in the immediate post-war years; this black-and-white homage to De Sica's great "Bicycle Thief" is called "Icicle Thief," and it's a dreary fable of melodramatic suffering at the poverty level.
But that's not this movie. This movie has that movie in it, but what "The Icicle Thief" is really about is the showing of this movie on Italian television, complete to a hysterical appearance by the director himself (who, under a disguise, also stars as the suffering working man in the film within the film), an introduction by a pompous critic who instantly reduces his film to a mouthful of meaty cliches, and, every 10 minutes or so, commercials in blinding color and blinding idiocy, touting the usual useless consumer goods, mainly detergent and candy.
Nichetti is doubly gifted. First, he's an extraordinary parodist, and the movie may be worth seeing for no other reason than cartoony spoofs on the ads, particularly as they always hit right in the middle of some somber, self-important passage in the art movie. At the same time, he's an especially gifted performer. It takes some concentration to realize that he's playing two different roles -- a vision of himself, the auteur, as a modern Chaplin figure,prone to fits of slapstick and graceful gracelessness; and as "Antonio," the hapless victim-hero of the film within the film.
The film ultimately comes to share a premise with Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo," to perhaps less effectiveness than Allen's use of it. As Nichetti has it, the boundaries separating film-inside, television show, director and characters, and film-outside break down and become hopelessly mixed. A svelte British model named Heidi in a cheeky bathing suit manages to slide from a commercial into the black and white impoverished Italy of 1946; "Antonio's" put-upon wife Maria (Caterina Sylos Labini) ends up starring in her own commercials in '90s TV; when "Antonio" is then suspected of her murder, "Maurizio" has to go back into his own movie to clear him.
Perhaps it's better seen than described. It's a shame the vividly clever Nichetti couldn't have exercised a mote more self-control, because at stages "The Icicle Thief" becomes so ditheringly complex it topples from noble parody into ignoble self-parody. But the movie is also lively and amusing and extremely insightful about the powerful penetration of the movies into the sensibility of the century.
'The Icicle Thief' Starring Maurizio Nichetti and Caterina Sylos Labini
Directedby Maurizio Nichetti
Released by Aries Films