By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 8, 2011 at 4:35AM
It might seem, particularly after a summer at the multiplexes like the one that we've just had, that American culture is driven entirely by the comic book. But that's not quite true; superhero movies might be all the rage, but comic books themselves remain a relatively niche passion -- this July, only "The Amazing Spider-Man" sold more than 100,000 copies, and it remains tainted by associations of geekdom, generally confined to comics shops. In Europe, in particular France and Italy, things are different; it's almost impossible to walk into a paper stall or tabac without seeing a book like Blueberry, Largo Winch, Danger: Diabolik or Dylan Dog, and they're bought by readers from kids to the elderly.
As such, it's easier for a comic book creator to make a leap to the big screen, and Venice had not one, but three directors who started out in the graphic novel world. We discussed Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's "Chicken With Plums" a few days ago, and our last film of the festival, "The Last Man on Earth," or "L'ultimo terrestre," marked the directorial debut of Italian writer and illustrator Gianni Pacinotti, or Gipi, best known for his award-winning works "Appunti per una Storia di Guerra" and "Questa e la Stanza." Tinged with sci-fi, and leaping between genres, it'd be an ambitious film for anyone to make, let alone a first-time writer/director. Do Gipi's skills on the page translate to the silver screen?
A few years into the future, Luca Bertacci (newcomer Gabriele Spinelli) works as a waiter at a bingo hall in an Italian town. His is a lonely life, brightened only by his friendship with a transvestite (Luca Marinelli), visits to his father (Roberto Hertzlika), and sessions of spying on his pretty neighbor Anna (Anna Bellato), although he carries an ingrained hatred of women, caused by his abandonment by his unfaithful mother as a child. But it's a strange time in Italy; an alien race have made contact, and are set to arrive on Earth in only a few days. The anticipation, and a few early arrivals, lead to Luca connecting with Anna, as well as discovering a long-held secret of his father's that will change his life...
If "The Last Man On Earth" has an obvious comparison point, it's as an Italian "Donnie Darko" -- Luca might be a little older, but he's just as troubled as young Donnie. The film also melds genres, including some lo-fi special effects and man-in-a-suit creature work, and uses extraordinary events to illustrate some very real personal crises. However, like 'Darko' director Richard Kelly, Gipi has some problems keeping all of his balls in the air, leading to some abrupt tonal lurches in the final act which moves the film into the 'interesting-but-flawed' category.
Visually, at least, the director makes a confident debut, with some striking framing and greatly effective use of depth, no doubt aided by his graphic novelist background. The film is pacy and lean, and music, including a number of songs from Italodisco revivalist Digitalism, is used well. Luca's gradual shift away from his misogyny is moving and well-handled, and the romance with Anna is tender and shows real promise. Additionally, while we suspect it'll play best to the home crowd, there's a nicely satiric bent to things which provided a few laughs even to an outsider -- the skewering of a Scientology-esque religion perhaps the most accessible of them.
For the first hour or so, Gipi keeps the balance of tones and genres well, with only a few bum notes. But the Almodovar-esque cross-dressing best friend, and a related sub-plot involving Luca's co-workers using her to take revenge on a colleague, don't really go anywhere. That is, until it suddenly explodes, in a dark turn that's entirely out of step with the rather sweet, charming film that's gone before, and the film never really gets back on track afterward. It's a callous, unjustified, sour move, one that makes you respect both the central character and the filmmaker a little less. And there's one more twist to come near the end, one which again feels both too neat and imported from a very different, much darker film.
It's not even that they're bad scenes -- they're powerful and well acted, just ill-fitting in their surroundings. The problem is that they also take screen time away from the strands that do work, in particular the flowering relationship between Luca and Anna, which takes the back seat for much of the last half hour, so the resolution feels unearned as a result. All in all, Gipi has rather too much on his plate for his first film, and the conclusion (which has strong moments, to be sure) somewhat overshadows the good work that preceded it. Still we'd rather a filmmaker aimed high and just missed the target, and there's plenty of evidence here to suggest that, next time out, Gipi will hit the bullseye. [C+]