Sublime Line

Imagination, imagery and impeccable acting infuse 'Illuminata' as it dances along between drama and comedy.

August 20, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Love, betrayal, death and hats dance in fanciful tandem in "Illuminata," John Turturro's farce about life and theater that is by turns elegant and bawdy, but always transfixing.

Indeed, "Illuminata" is about so many things, and expresses so many ideas in its giddy, rapid-fire way, that it's difficult to relegate it to any genre. Filled with slapstick physical comedy and ribald asides, it is certainly a comedy, but it is also suffused with such tenderness and intelligence that it qualifies as the most serious drama.

Unashamedly robust in its depiction of sexuality, it also conveys a childlike innocence and hope in its characters' inherent goodness. Staged and designed with terrific imagination and painterly flair, it also possesses moments of realism that succeed in making its world of artifice and melodrama utterly real.

Complex and beautiful and perfectly acted, "Illuminata" is the first truly sophisticated comedy to hit screens since "Shakespeare in Love." (And, like that movie, it probably needs at least two viewings for audiences to catch every line.)

John Turturro, who directs from a script he wrote with Brandon Cole, plays Tuccio, a playwright working in New York at the turn of the century. When the lead actor in his current play collapses on stage, Tuccio begs theater owners Astergourd and Pallenchio (Beverly D'Angelo and Donal McCann) to let him stage "Illuminata," his new play. "Illuminata," Tuccio's ode to unconditional love in the face of the most searing betrayal, will star his wife, Rachel (Katherine Borowitz), who is also his company's manager.

Tuccio succeeds in mounting his production, but the play is savaged by Bevalaqua (Christopher Walken), an all-powerful theater critic who is a cross between Machiavelli and Oscar Wilde. Whether Tuccio will have another chance depends on what transpires over the course of one evening, in which he and his friends engage in a lusty ronde of fateful encounters.

Although "Illuminata" bears all the earmarks of a classic farce -- with lots of coming and going and theatrical outbursts -- its sublime core is evident from the opening credits, which feature ethereal, eerie-looking puppets designed by Roman Paska. Hypnotic, ghostly, the puppets suggest that viewers are entering a world somewhere between life and art, where stale bread crumbs can become snow and a bit of tattered paper can become a full red rose.

It's also a world in which a young actress, asked if she could cross left to right across the stage, answers, "Not emotionally, no."

Turturro, playing Tuccio with a Mephistophelean gleam, orchestrates the shifting emotional tones with great sensitivity, and he has enlisted an ensemble of players formidable enough to keep up with "Illuminata's" delirious action.

Especially delicious here is Susan Sarandon as the aging diva Celimene, who utters the film's central idea when she tells Tuccio that "it's a slender curtain between theater and life." Walken, his face powdered and rouged into a pathetic mask of desperation, tries to seduce one of Tuccio's players by listing his likes and dislikes, personal-ad style: "What do I like? Chocolate, Caravaggio, revenge " Holding the story together is Borowitz -- Turturro's real-life wife -- who acts as a fulcrum of calm, a John Singer Sargent painting come to serenely wise life.

As heroic as the actors are here -- and we haven't even mentioned the good offices of Rufus Sewell, Bill Irwin, Ben Gazzara and the late, great Donal McCann -- the real star of "Illuminata" is its team of designers, who have come up with a wildly colorful, textured, inventive and seductive production (production designer Robin Standefer and costume designer Donna Zakowska deserve special kudos for their stunning work).

"Illuminata" takes place in 1905 New York, but its modernist touches give it a dreamlike timelessness. It's just this ambiguity that enhances its deeply rewarding charms, as life and performance merge to increasingly magical effect.

"We live in a drama," says a character at one point. "That is our triumph -- the triumph of the imagination." By "Illuminata's" moving final scene, imagination has triumphed, and we're much the better for it.

`Illuminata'

Starring John Turturro, Katherine Borowitz, Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Rufus Sewell, Georgina Cates

Directed by John Turturro

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Rated R (sexual content, nudity and language)

Running time 120 minutes

Sun score ***

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