With `Unfair Competition,' film festival opens on high note


Film Column

March 28, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Baltimore's smartly programmed William and Irene Weinberg Family Jewish Film Festival has scored a coup with its Tuesday night selection of Nowhere in Africa, this year's Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, about a German family's exile in Kenya during World War II. It's a gorgeous movie, but I like Saturday's opening night film even more: Italian master Ettore Scola's Unfair Competition, a full tragicomic portrait of the friction and friendship between Catholic and Jewish neighbors on a Roman street in 1938.

The success of Polanski's brilliant, visually striking The Pianist suggests that audiences may be ready for tales of the Holocaust that resist sweeping morals and catharses and emphasize the particularity of every individual's reaction to the challenge of fascist evil. In its own deceptively modest and often very droll way, that's what Scola's movie does, too.

Clocking in at a jam-packed but leisurely 110 minutes, Unfair Competition is a twin-family saga that depicts the belated blossoming of understanding between a Gentile tailor (Diego Abatantuono) and his commercial rival, a Jewish haberdasher (Sergio Castellito). They work and live next door to each other (both make their homes above their shops), and their clans lead interconnected lives: Their young sons are best friends, and Abatantuono's older son and Castellito's daughter are semi-secret sweethearts.

The tailor, a craftsman who savors his material and carries himself with a connoisseur's hauteur, sees his loss of customers to the ready-to-wear salesman as a decline in values. The haberdasher's approach owes less to an artisan's traditions than to the promotional push of show biz. Scola and his screenwriters (among them that amazing veteran Furio Scarpelli, whose credits include Seduced and Abandoned), take their competition to prickly extemes, until Abatantuono uses the word "Jew," once, as an epithet of scorn.

The tailor actually abhors anti-Semitism - he realizes that when he used the word that way he was picking the one syllable that would hurt his competitor most, as people do in fights. The experience proves more degrading, and ultimately more transforming, for the tailor than it is for the haberdasher. Through a marvel of performance, Abatantuono shows his character regaining his own pride as he comes to respect Castellito's haberdasher as a fellow businessman. He does what he can to buck him up when Mussolini's government enacts sweeping new racial laws.

The shared honor of shopkeepers is an unusual theme for a movie, but Scola fleshes out that and many others without breaking a sweat. With a warm ruefulness and gravity, an atypically restrained Gerard Depardieu, as the tailor's schoolteacher brother, embodies the uselessness of an intellectual's pride in being right, especially when he fails to back it with forceful action. Framing the story with the narration of the tailor's young son, Scola creates thumbnail portraits of relatives, servants, friends and employees in both families, then polishes them down to the cuticle. He extracts farce and creeping horror from the intersection of clan and national politics.

The climax is perfection. It asks whether a show of empathy can offer solace to friends on the brink of catastrophe - and ends without easy answers, only the doubt-streaked hope of a child. The highest praise I can give Unfair Competition is that it evokes Jean Renoir's profound line, "In this world, there is one terrible thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons."

The festival kicks off tomorrow with the Baltimore premiere of Unfair Competition at 8:30 p.m., and continues this week with Nowhere in Africa at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The rest of the schedule includes another German film, Gloomy Sunday, at 8:30 p.m. April 5; Amen, Costa-Gavras' version of Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy, at 8:30 p.m. April 6; The Sky Will Fall, an Italian film with Isabella Rossellini, at 7:30 p.m. April 8; the Israeli movie Yellow Asphalt, at 7:30 p.m. April 10; the French comedy God is Great, starring Audrey Tautou of Amelie, at 9 p.m. April 12; and the closing feature, Monsieur Batignole, at 3 p.m. April 13.

All screenings take place at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynbrook Ave., Owings Mills. Tickets, $8, are on sale at the Gordon box office a half-hour before showtime, or at the Weinberg Park Heights and the Rosenbloom Owings Mills Jewish community centers from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call Claudine Davison, 410 542 4900, Ext. 239.

At the Charles

The Charles' Saturday noon revival series features one of the funniest romantic comedies ever made - Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, with a never-sexier Barbara Stanwyck and a never-defter Henry Fonda. Admission: $5. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.thecharles.com.

And this weekend's choice for Cinema Sundays at the Charles is Gurinder Chadha's crowd-pleasing Bend it Like Beck- ham, the story of an Indian girl in London who flouts family rules and conventions when she joins a soccer team. Coffee and bagels start at 9:45 a.m. Showtime: 10:30 a.m. Admission: $15. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.cinemasundays.com.

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