Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux) doesn’t look too good on paper. In fact, he looks like he walked straight out of a David Lynch movie and caught the first plane to Naples. He’s so short that he is constantly referred to as a dwarf; he has a comb-over and a hideous Eurotrash wardrobe, and he stuffs animals for a living. But money talks, so when he offers gorgeous Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo), an apprenticeship in his taxidermy business at what can only be termed a very generous salary, what can the Italian Adonis do but sign on? There turn out to be plenty of perks to the job besides the pay, starting with the admiration of strangers for his lifelike animals and ending with drunken nights with prostitutes paid for by his employer.
The Embalmer features one of the more bizarre love triangles to come along in a while, and a killer performance by Mahieux. There’s little doubt from the beginning what Peppino’s motives are regarding Valerio. Yet it’s only when a girl comes into the picture that Peppino’s vaguely creepy, heretofore understated affections are thrown into stark relief. On a day trip to Cremona to perform an ugly task for the Mafioso to whom he is indebted (and, really, this is where the film’s title comes from; it otherwise might have been better called The Taxidermist, as it has sometimes been titled), Peppino must leave Valerio alone while he attends to his work. The handsome young man hooks up with Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti), a dead-end girl all out of options who attaches herself to him like a leech and proceeds to destroy the delicate fantasy that Peppino has constructed.
Peppino’s idea of his relationship with Valerio is a whispered story, a house of cards that Valerio either doesn’t see or chooses not to see; Deborah, desperate in her own way, is onto Peppino from the start, and makes no secret of her knowledge. There are elements of Pygmalion in Peppino’s relationship with Valerio, and of Chuck and Buck as well. But The Embalmer lacks the tragic desperation of either of these earlier works. Because the tale is told from every perspective but Peppino’s — the film’s opening sequence is shot partly from the view of a caged zoo bird in front of whom Valerio and Peppino first meet, the bird’s eyes blinking over the camera lens, a sign of things to come — it’s hard not only to get a read on Peppino’s love (or lust) but even to muster any sympathy for his unpleasant position as jilted would-be lover. His affection never seems to be anything more than a wolfish appreciation of Valerio’s good looks, especially since Valerio is almost devoid of his own personality. Shaw did wonders with the lover-lovee power struggle (although Eliza Doolittle did happen to have a mind of her own, unlike Valerio); writer-director Matteo Garrone takes it far, but doesn’t go the distance.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Aug. 11, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.