Once again, body language speaks volumes Movies are putting the human form to good use. It's not sex, but physical acting, in which motion shows emotion.

October 25, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

In a welcome alignment of the cinematic planets, filmgoers this week will be able to witness a rare occurrence in the cinema, a thing so sublime, so poetic, so lyrical and expressive that they will surely rise up in indignation that it has been kept from them for so long.

I am talking about the body. The human form. From eyebrow to toenail. In three movies currently or soon to be on screen, audiences can witness the return of physical acting in all its eloquent glory.

* In "The Impostors," actor-director Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt, along with an ensemble of wonderfully game players, revisit the farces of the silent and screwball eras, with suitably antic results.

* In "Life is Beautiful," which opens in Baltimore Friday, Roberto Benigni, Italy's most gifted comic actor, explores how necessary laughter is to survival in his drama about a World War II labor camp.

* In a gloriously restored version of "Nights of Cabiria," Federico Fellini's 1957 classic that opened Friday at the Charles, star Giulietta Masina shows why she is so often called the female Charlie Chaplin.

You don't see bodies much in the movies anymore. Television has so thoroughly insinuated itself into the cinema that nowadays the big screen has become just a bigger version of the box, with its hacked-up images and dumbed-down narrative. And faces. Lots of faces.

Bodies, when they're seen, are twisted into a pretzel of carnal abstraction. Or they're compartmentalized into sight gags on a par with Ben Stiller's zipper-entangled privates in "There's Something About Mary."

But most often they are simply left on the cutting room floor, making way for disembodied, albeit pretty, faces. After all, when a movie company pays a star up to $20 million a picture, it wants to see teeth, and the bigger and whiter the better.

It wasn't always this way. Once, actors were responsible for most of the dramatic expression in movies. Without the benefit of sound, early films depended on actors - usually culled from the legitimate stage and vaudeville troupes - to use their dance and mime skills not only to relate the story, but also to give filmgoers a sense of their characters' inner lives.

Thus, the heartbreaking dramatic impact of "The Gold Rush" and "City Lights," which pivoted on the waif-like movements of Chaplin as well as the sorrow reflected in his eyes.

As movie technology evolved, invaluable parts of its original language were lost, especially the full shot - where the actor's entire body is visible in the frame - and the long take, a single unbroken shot that allows action to play out uninterrupted.

Luckily, a preservationist movement is afoot. And it's no surprise that its vanguard is composed of two guys named Tucci and Benigni, who are carrying forward a tradition of clowning that reaches back for its influences to the commedia dell'arte, the itinerant, improvised ensemble theater that thrived in Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries. Drawing heavily on mime and acrobatics, commedia dell'arte was best known for its masks, each of which denoted a member of the zanni, or stock characters.

You can catch a glimpse of those zanni today. Tucci's out-of-work actor in "The Impostors" makes just the slightest nod toward Scapino (whose French version Tucci played in an Off-Broadway adaptation of Moliere's "Scapin" in 1993), a much more malevolent zanno from the commedia. Benigni's winsome waiter in "Life is Beautiful," as well as Masina's doe-eyed Cabiria, both evoke Pedrolino, the lovesick clown best known in his Gallicized version of Pierrot.

Tucci has been an ardent champion of the long take and the full shot since he directed "Big Night," the comedy in which he also starred. Tucci played a business-like restaurant owner, and Tony Shalhoub was his brother, a moody and sensitive chef. Watching the two men dance around each other as they cooked together in the kitchen was among the many subtle pleasures of "Big Night." (In addition to the joys of comedy, "Big Night" brought back visual and temporal logic - the sense that time and place are rooted and consistent - to a medium that has become increasingly fractured.)

In "The Impostors," the farce is broader but the subtlety no less present. In one of the movie's most memorable scenes, Tucci and Platt's characters start by pretending to repair an Arab sheik's phonograph, and wind up involved in a strangely erotic dance with the sensuous sheik. Think of Nijinsky crossed with burlesque, and you get an idea of the oddly off-kilter, balletic effect.

Benigni takes the zaniness down a notch. We meet his character as a waiter who pines for the love of his "principessa." As the story progresses, the waiter is arrested and taken to a fascist labor camp with his young son. To protect the boy from danger, as well as the terrible knowledge of where he is, Benigni's character fools him into thinking the camp is an elaborate game put on for their benefit.

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