After Cinema Paradiso – one the greatest films ever made about the magic of cinema – Giuseppe Tornatore not only returns to the topic and his beloved Sicily in the achingly beautiful drama “L’uomo delle stele” [Eng. Title: The Star Maker], he also extends the canvas of the film substantially with insightful observations of a society in the 1940s, emerging from poverty and war. Delicately entwined within its framework is also a poignant love story.
Mainland Italian Joe Morelli travels the Sicilian countryside offering to conduct screen tests for a fee, and encourages everyone to have a shot at stardom. Unaware that he is a fraudster, people from all walks of life pay up for a chance to make it in films, and in the process pour open their hearts and trust to the camera that they dare not to anyone else. But Morelli isn’t the least interested in what they have to say. He is unwilling to get engaged with locals beyond the monetary transaction they entail, even if some of their candid thoughts are crying out to be heard. He simply refuses to ‘see’.
This is until he meets Beata, a young orphan girl from the convent who attends a screen test, and falls in love with him despite his discouragement. Unfortunately, by the time he begins to love her in return, his past misdemeanours catch up with him, and after a series of misfortunes, ends up serving time. Released after two years, a defeated and world-weary Morelli goes in search of Beata, to hopefully try and rebuild his life…
Tornatore has constructed the film in the uniquely Italian tradition of Commedia all’italiana where humour is infused into the narrative to deliver a social message, and The Star Maker is replete with messages; about cinema, dreams, corruption and exploitation, love, and above all, Sicily itself. The film is his love letter to a region and its people that he obviously holds dear – one he will revisit on numerous other occasions in his illustrious filmography. The Star Maker is nevertheless resolutely non-sentimental, refusing to indulge in any kind of idealism and rhetoric. There are no wise voices like that of Philippe Noiret in Cinema Paradiso, no redemption for the protagonist, and no conveniently resolved endings.
What it does, however, is lovingly capture a Sicily trying to dust off the ravages of war and find utterance, like the protagonist himself after his misfortune, or like the shell-shocked Spanish civil war veteran in one of the brilliant passages of play when he finally speaks to the camera rather than another human being after many years of silence – a scene movingly portrayed by Leopoldo Trieste. It also shows a Sicily on the cusp of change, where Morelli’s presence unwittingly becomes a catalyst by allowing people to dream, and to act – for better or for worse. The film is essentially a morality tale, and it also compares Morelli’s unscrupulous livelihood of exploiting people and their dreams to the commercialisation of cinema itself.
While there may be similarities between The Star Maker and Cinema Paradiso in terms of capturing cinema’s magic and its impact on ordinary people’s lives during post-war Sicily, the focus is invariably different. If Cinema Paradiso is more personal and draws on Tornatore’s own childhood, The Star Maker is altogether ambitious by attempting a sociological snapshot of Sicily when Italian cinema was its most glorious – the peak of Italian Neorealism during which there was a trend of using non-actors in its social dramas, a trend that also inspired budding master filmmakers around the world, from Ingmar Bergman to Satyajit Ray. Yet, not too long ago, Italy used to be seduced by star-studded extravaganzas from Hollywood, and the allure of stardom had already become embedded in its people’s psyche.
The irony is amusingly illustrated through Morelli’s preferred choice of dialogues for the screen tests – Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler interpretations from the American Civil War epic Gone with the Wind. That the locals give wildly offbeat renditions of the demanded dialogue, and in some cases cannot remember the lines altogether, and proceed to talk about themselves instead, shows the effect neorealism itself was beginning to make on ordinary people – for they too could now dream of being ‘discovered’ by the likes of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica. And Morelli’s van, plastered with star photographs and film paraphernalia, becomes their own vehicle to stardom, as is illustrated when Beata actually attempts to stowaway by hiding in it.
Sergio Castallitto is magnificent as the protagonist Joe Morelli in bringing forth his character’s humanity, who connects with the local people despite the motives, who refuses to take advantage of a star struck teenager, even if she has the propensity to shed clothes in order to win favours – as someone who tries to be ‘good’ despite his indifferent profession. The film is also stacked with technical and artistic merit; the breathtaking cinematography by Dante Spinotti with its intricate tracking shots, the painstaking lighting and choice of locations, the exquisite production design by Francesco Bonzi, the haunting soundtrack by Tornatore-regular Ennio Morricone, the imaginative editing, and not least Tornatore’s directorial eye. Short listed for Oscar and numerous other awards, this is a film that oozes class, and its reputation is richly deserved.
A morality tale, but also an affecting portrait of a post-war Sicily undergoing change, Italian auteur Giuseppe Tornatore follows up on the brilliant Cinema Paradiso with another equally captivating drama showcasing his love for cinema and the country he hails from. This is a must-see for anyone who loves pure cinema and expects European filmmaking at its finest.
One of the wonders with the invention of cinema, is that for the first time in human history, ordinary people could dare to dream of achieving stardom. A gifted few achieve fame as painters, poets, playwrights, or scientists. But whether they’re talented or not, rich or poor, and handsome or ordinary, cinema gives them all an opportunity to become recognisable celebrities overnight – all that’s required was for them to be ‘discovered’.
In a sense egalitarian, but quite fickle in real terms, the true nature of cinema – both as a medium and an industry, is captured quite magnificently by Tornatore in L’uomo delle stelle – it is a screenplay and characterisation of the highest calibre. Sometimes, I’m glad that the director takes his time between projects – perhaps it is because of this that every one of his films turn out to be such remarkable masterpieces, full of insight and technical brilliance. This is a favourite gem from one of my favourite directors – needless to say, it is Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Clelia Rondinella and Tiziana Lodato
The film also features some memorable nude scenes, notably by a young Tiziana Lodato who plays Beata – when she tries to make some quick cash to pay for Joe’s screen test, and when trying to bribe Joe into taking her with him, and finally when she loses her virginity to Joe. There is also nudity from Clelia Rondinella, who plays a mother offering to trade favours with Joe for her daughter’s screen test.