Autobiographical 'Leolo' chronicles the adolescent imagination

MOVIES

May 28, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Leolo"

Starring Maxime Collin and Ginette Reno

Directed by Jean-Claude Lauzon

Released by Fine Line

Unrated

*** The enchanted hell known as the adolescent imagination has never gotten quite the examination as the one it receives in Jean-Claude Lauzon's "Leolo," which opens today at the Charles.

Clearly autobiographical, it's about a brilliant kid locked in a barren, crippled and violent family in an impoverished Montreal neighborhood in the late '40s; but rather than being bleak and hopeless, as such a description might suggest, it is instead filled with romance and magic and poetry. It's a wonderful movie, though brutally truthful.

Like many a distressed adolescent, Leo (Maxime Collin) has decided to reinvent himself. He is not the son of a fishmonger but rather the scion of an anonymous agricultural worker in Sicily, who one fine day gave the gift of life to a pile of tomatoes, if you know what I mean and I think you do. Later, Leo's mother slipped and fell into the tomatoes and by one of those strange quirks of fate that only a slightly sex-crazed teen-age boy could concoct, was actually impregnated by one. Thus Leo begins calling himself "Leolo," and his fantasies are obsessed with the beauty and the majesty of Italy instead of the squalor of reality, that is, when he's not thinking about masturbating.

The film slides like an ice dancer between his rich fantasy life and the grotesqueness of his real life. His response to the latter is to record the former in a series of books, which a fanciful figure called "The Word Tamer" discovers, thus initiating a search for him. This, by the way, is the richest fantasy of all teen-age wannabe writers -- that someone somewhere has discovered your exquisite talent and is desperately hunting for you in order to make you rich and famous. But there's truth to it in Lauzon's real life: living in the same dire poverty as his alter ego, he was "discovered" by an influential member of Canada's film board who tracked him down and rescued him from a life of stoop labor. The film, in fact, is dedicated to this gentleman, Andre Petrowski.

Yet Leolo's real life is just as fantastic as his fantasy life. His tragic, beautiful brother Fernand is a bodybuilder who sheathes himself in muscle to hide the fear that corrodes his heart; it doesn't work, tragically. His grandfather is a brute and a cretin but in some ways a magnificent monster; his father is a hard-working guy, decent yet brutal; his sisters are completely dysfunctional in flamboyant ways and his poor mother attempts bravely to cope with all this madness.

Individual family members check in and out of the asylum as the need arises and at any given moment two or three of them may be in there; Leolo himself is subject to great psychiatric scrutiny when he refuses to pay attention in school and, asked by a counselor to draw something, insists on turning in a blank page which he calls "a white rabbit in a snowstorm."

The movie doesn't progress narratively; it moves anecdotally, sliding back and forth through the years, taking Leolo finally to the climax of his adolescence, which is apparently a surrender to the demons inside him. Yet it ends on a hopeful note; you suspect that the wretched boy shivering in an ice bath in the movie's final image grew to be the man that captured the agonies of his youth in the film you have just seen.

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