A Difficult Subject

in 18th Sofia International Film Festival

by Marco Lombardi

Amedeo van Savoy is almost unknown to Piedmontese people, in spite of his statue and a street named after him in Turin. In fact, for two years — from 1870 until 1872 — he was king of an ungovernable Spain as his mainstay, the powerful Generale Prim, was murdered before Amedeo was properly installed, and Spain was plagued by administrative and financial crisis. Aware of this, queen Maria Vittoria came to Spain to encourage him, but soon returned to Piedmont, leaving him in a bizarre situation of “no power”, i.e. in a situation of loneliness and frustrations, which a few times drove Amedeo out of Spain.

Luis Miñarro, an independent producer who is well known above all for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past livesthat won Palme d’Or in 2010 at the Cannes film festival, and for some of Manoel De Oliveira films, has chosen a difficult subject for his first feature film. In fact, historical movies are very risky, as they sometimes show themselves as ornate biographies that bore the audience. On the contrary, Stella cadente is a very modern one that tells — through actors and form — how politics, and power itself, is labyrinthine, deceptive and ambiguous.

At the beginning the film might seem like a conventional, historical one, with a traditional story (and close framing) that seem good only for television. In fact, Alex Brandemühl, who plays Amedeo van Savoy, is immediately an unfathomable mask that puts Stella cadente on a different path. When he raves about his political program — although he speaks about constitutional monarchy, business development and education for poor people — we feel in his words something that doesn’t work. Besides the political and economic crisis that had produced a sort of civil war, Amedeo feels uncomfortable with power and leadership, so that we immediately understand that his ideas are just philosophy, and he has not enough energy to achieve them. Amedeo seems even devoid of virility, as power itself has taken possession of it, weakening his royal identity.

This kind of human fragility is well described through a sexual ambiguity that looks more grotesque and ironic instead of erotic. In fact, after the queen’s departure (a symbolic character who for Amedeopresents the last opportunity to join reality), the king will taste — without joy — different sexual experiences: at the beginning an affair with his female cook, whom he even teaches how to read and write; a voyeuristic affair with his handsome assistant; and, at last, homosexual intercourse. Some scenes are almost trash, as for example the one where Amedeo’s assistant makes love with a watermelon,but the general sexual ambiguity of Amedeo is historically proven.

The grotesque soul of the film is reinforced by photography: the static images force the viewers’ attention at the actors’ facial expressions as they try to come out of their lifeless masks; the colour palette hovers between Pedro Almodovar’s heated imbalances and Peter Greenaway’s rational harmonies. Moreover, objects are very symbolic, sometimes metaphysical. The final result tastes of Luis Buñuel.

Some French romantic songs in highly dramatic situations ironically turn melodrama into a fresh comedy, as Sofia Coppola did with rock songs in Marie Antoinette, transforming a queen into a teenager who has to rebel. In life as in cinema, the best way to tell human nature’s weakness is laughing at it, without hypocrisy.

Edited by Birgit Beumers