The credits of the new film The Embalmer translate the title as The Taxidermist. The second title may be more accurate as to subject matter, but both speak to the film’s theme: the emptiness of a life.
Our taxidermist is named Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux). He practices his trade in a provincial town outside of Rome, imagining that he leads a big shot’s life because he has a little cash to throw around and has contacts in the mafia. Without family or obligations, he calls his life “carefree,” but, in fact, he owes an ever-growing sum to the local mob boss. He has what he and his friends in the mafia see as a vice — young men — and because he’s a tad freakish in appearance, he uses the mafia money to buy what he couldn’t otherwise afford.
Peppino’s tragedy lies not in his homosexuality, but in his inability to come to terms with it. He fondles women horrifically on the dance floor, not for sensual release, but as a balm to his conscience. He objectifies them as a kind of a ruse; he thinks he’s fooling others, and needs to fool himself, too. Though he’s obviously most alive in the company of young men, he can’t accept his attraction to them. And he certainly can’t keep company with other gay men, as his associates, the provincial gangsters, are classically phobic.
Peppino’s primary object of affection is Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo), a terrifically handsome young man who lives with his brother’s family, hangs out with his girlfriend, and works as a cook. A 24-year-old kid, Valerio is taller than Peppino by about three feet, with a goofy smile and charming vulnerability to persuasion. Peppino correctly guesses that he wants more than this simple life, and lures him with a taste of fast living and an apprenticeship that pays far more than it’s worth. Soon, the two are sharing a flat and bringing home girls for wild parties, one girl for each. Valerio cannot help but notice Peppino’s special attentions, but he’s willing to play along in their imitation friendship.
As Peppino’s debt to the mob boss mounts, he is called upon to perform a grisly service in Cremona. While accompanying Peppino, Valerio is taken with a sexy, determined local woman named Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti). Deborah knows how to get what she wants and she understands this intricate emotional territory, perhaps better than the men. She returns to live with them, and an undeclared battle begins.
Director Matteo Garrone (also co-writer, with Ugo Chiti) has a keen eye for the small treacheries that make up this battle, highlighting a glance of suspicion from Deborah or a false denial from Valerio. The Embalmer is wonderfully indirect; it paints a complicated psychological landscape but doesn’t make any of it explicit. Even in their confrontations, the threesome skirts the real issues, alluding to Peppino’s longing and manipulation without ever saying the words. Seeing it in the middle of Hollywood’s summer blockbuster season, you can’t help but admire the way the narrative is handled; no one says, “I think you’ve got a problem” and the expected “healing” never begins. (The closest the movie comes to conventional plotting comes when the mob boss tells Peppino, “I know everything,” nodding toward Valerio, but nothing specific comes of it.)
Amid the warfare, Garrone pauses for lyric passages, such as a dreamlike, sweeping take of our three principals on go-carts, riding silently around a track, set against an empty backdrop beneath an overcast sky. In their separate carts, they’re alone, even in the context of this group diversion. Here and elsewhere, Marco Onorato’s camerawork is impressive. His camera frequently pans across a location — the racetrack, a dingy beach, a concrete pavilion, or a housing block — arriving at a subject only gradually, as if to frame its solitude. The Italian coast he presents is both nightmarishly isolated (a milieu of sand and disrepair, evoking Fascism’s architectural legacy), and defiantly inhabited, almost beautiful.
Such visual combinations refer to earlier Italian cinema: The Embalmer‘s locations recall Olmi and pre-Cinecittà Fellini, its meditative passages those of Antonioni, and its realism a whole generation of Italian neo-Realists. Where it departs from its forbears is in its melodrama. The real story in The Embalmer lies just beneath the surface of what’s presented on the screen; it’s informed less by Peppino visiting Deborah and Valerio at Cremora and more by Deborah’s controlled rage at finding him there. Garrone often resists spelling out the conflict, just as Olmi would, but sometimes the melodrama creeps in. When, at film’s end, a gun appears, the device fails not only because it rings false, but also because it feels like a betrayal of the great Italian tradition on which the rest of The Embalmer draws.
Few of us have met a character so large and sad as Peppino, or been involved in a triangle so dysfunctional as this one. And yet, their interactions are instantly recognizable, and it soon becomes easy to identify with Peppino’s desires. With fewer sensational confrontations, The Embalmer is a major work. As it stands, it signals the emergence of an exceptional filmmaker.