31 January 2000 | Buddy-51
dull backstage drama
"Write what you know about" has long been the dictum for writers ranging all the way from accomplished published authors to struggling composition class students; is there a playwright then who can resist the temptation to compose a play about composing a play? It has, of course, been done countless times in the past ("Shakespeare in Love" being but the most recent popular example), but, alas, rarely as dully as in "Illuminata," Brandon Cole's tale of a turn-of-the-century repertory company struggling, amid personal conflicts, theatrical roadblocks and even death, to produce an original work (itself entitled "Illuminata"). Cole, along with co-writer and director, John Turturro, centers his story on the playwright, Tuccio, (also played by Turturro), as he copes with temperamental actors, theatre owners and critics, all of whom conspire, intentionally or unintentionally, to sabotage his work.
Like so many films that attempt to deal seriously with the creative process, "Illuminata" seems naively to suggest that inspiration can only be achieved after the creator has undergone a series of concomitant life experiences that somehow illuminate the truths hitherto obscured in darkness. Thus, since, in this case, the play-within-the-play deals with the issue of marital infidelity, it is only after the entire cast and crew of the production have participated in a night long sexual roundelay (which consists essentially of switching partners in a style too cute for words) that the play (which failed in its first performance the night before) can come to complete artistic fruition. This cloying and cliched view of theatre as merely a reflection of life (or vice versa) might have been acceptable had the script provided any truly interesting characters, profound insights or satiric wit to carry us through. As it is, though, the characters are both unappealing and woefully underdeveloped, the insights consist of mere self-indulgent paeans to the glory of artistic creation and the humor rests mainly in a series of surprisingly crude illustrations of sexual activity. Furthermore, Turturro is such a dull, uninspiring lead, with his constant sadsack expression and look of pained bewilderment, that he conveys no sense of the dynamism essential to a person capable of producing a work of genius. This leaves the rest of the cast, some of whom are very good, pretty much adrift as they thrash about looking for something solid in the way of character development to hold onto.
Actually, the highlight of this film comes during the opening credit sequence, a beautifully done marionette performance that is almost heartbreaking in its otherworldly beauty and delicacy. It is a measure of the failure of the rest of the film that the audience wishes IT were performed by marionettes as well.