Saturday, December 06, 2008

Ozpetek at MoMA: Facing Windows

In 1988, Babette’s Feast became a true sleeper hit in America, largely due to its beautifully filmed scenes of the meal’s lavish preparation. It was eventually followed by the likes of Eat Drink Man Woman, Like Water for Chocolate, and Chocolat, establishing the “food” movies as a pitchable property on the international film circuit. It would be a mistake to consider Ferzan Ozpetek’s Facing Windows in such a context. Yes, elegant pastries are lovingly assembled, but the act of baking in Ozpetek’s film offers consolation, not fulfillment. Such consolation is very much needed in Windows (trailer here), which screens at MoMA as part of their Ozpetek retrospective series.

Giovanna is not overwhelmed by domestic bliss. She toils at a soul-deadening job and her marriage to Filippo is deteriorating. At least she takes some enjoyment from baking pastries for the local pub. One fateful night, Filippo insists they bring home an addled old man who appears to be suffering from some sort of dementia. At first, all they get out of him is the name “Simone,” but he becomes much more vocal when Giovanna starts her baking.

As flashbacks from his past intrude into his perception of reality, “Simone” suddenly tears off into Rome’s old Jewish Quarter, like a man possessed. Giovanna enlists the help of her neighbor Lorenzo, the bachelor banker whose apartment faces hers, to corral the elderly man. As Giovanna cleans up her mysterious guest after his safe return, she discovers a number tattooed to his forearm, and the pieces start to fall into place.

“Simone” has several secrets. One of which is the nature of the great love of his life, which is pretty easy to guess from the early flashbacks and the gay themes of Ozpetek’s previous films. The other involves the infamous round-up of Roman Jews on October 16, 1943. However, he is not the only secretive character. It turns out Giovanna and Lorenzo have both been furtively watching each other for sometime, in his case to a degree that approaches the obsessive.

Ozpetek is very circumspect in his treatment of the Holocaust, focusing on its lingering emotional aftermath rather than the actual horrific events. While there are many flashbacks to 1943, Ozpetek includes no scenes of the concentration camps or even the infamous round-up. When originally released, Windows may have been sold on the strength of the elaborate confections Giovanna and her elderly guest create, but they are misleading. Their pastries are only a bittersweet desert complementing a much more austere meal of pain and regret.

As the mysterious gentleman baker, Massimo Girotti gives a haunting performance, in what would be his final role. Giovanna Mezzogiorno is also quite convincing as the quietly desperate Giovanna. Unfortunately, when Raoul Bova’s problematic Lorenzo comes out of his reserved shell, he seems overly melodramatic, and his angst compares poorly with the far greater sufferings of the other characters

Windows is visually dramatic, thanks to Patrizio Marone’s masterful editing of flashback sequences and Gianfilppo Corticelli’s rich cinematography. Unfortunately, Andrea Guerra’s sweeping score is often sounds overwrought and the occasional use of Italian pop songs sabotage the overall mood of the picture. Despite some emotional excesses, it effectively displays Ozpetek’s tremendous sensitivity as a filmmaker. Windows screens again on Sunday the 14th, as the Ozpetek retrospective continues at MoMA.