Actors directing actors: Beautiful Penélope Cruz gets to strut, wobble, and unglamorously shriek her stuff as the drab of desire opposite Sergio Castellitto in the Italian actor’s second directorial outing, Don’t Move—a compelling if not altogether convincing tale of mad love and divine redemption, adapted from the prize-winning novel by Castellitto’s wife, Margaret Mazzantini.
Both the book, which is dedicated to “Sergio,” and the movie were enormously successful in Italy; it’s hard not to see them both as part of a meta-performance, even though Castellitto (subject of a recent Walter Reade tribute titled “Our Man of the Hour”) casts himself as Cruz’s foil. Or perhaps he is challenging Nanni Moretti. Like Moretti in The Son’s Room, Castellitto plays a middle-aged doctor, Timoteo, suffering the worst imaginable mid-life crisis—in this case, a surgeon who learns that his teenage daughter has been gravely injured in a motorbike accident. But this crisis involves sex as well as death. Castellitto’s anguished waiting is interspersed with flashbacks to his domestic life and guilt-ridden affair with Cruz, a gum-chewing slattern provocatively named Italia (although she’s half Albanian).
The novel, narrated by the doctor and addressed to his daughter, is essentially a confession; the action in the movie is more existential. In a not unresonant echo of Camus’s The Stranger, Timoteo and Italia meet in the heat of the day when his car breaks down outside a dusty café on the smelly outskirts of Rome. She offers to let him use her phone. He does and then, blasted by vodka and the sun, excited by her awkward bowlegged gait and ill-fitting mini, or perhaps overwhelmed by the suffocating ambience of her sordid flat, rapes his mildly startled hostess on the hovel floor, staggering home late to the seaside paradise he shares with his conventionally gorgeous wife (Claudia Gerini, Mrs. P. Pilate in The Passion of the Christ).
The power of abjection will not be denied. A great love has been born. Provoked by Italia’s outré vulnerability, Timoteo falls for her—returning to stake out the half-finished housing block where the mugly one lives, until she stumbles by, burdened with casual misery and unwieldy groceries. Mazzantini’s novel emphasizes Timoteo’s irrational obsession by dwelling on Italia’s negative sex appeal: “With her peroxided blonde hair, her painted face, and her multi-colored bag, she looked like a clown left behind by the circus. . . . [Hers] was not a desirable body. Indeed, it looked downright inhospitable.” This, of course, is not possible with Cruz; however badly dressed, she embodies the ungainly disheveled Italia with considerable physical élan.
Once Timoteo finds out that Italia cleans hotel rooms, he brings her along to a medical conference where they can fuck in comfort on fancy sheets. Still, vulgarity, if not degradation, is the heart of her appeal. Timoteo seems to derive far more pleasure when dressed in an “I Love Italy” T-shirt and slumming with Italia’s friends. Where his wife cooks exotic cuisine, Italia provides breaded rice balls and gnocchi. Significantly, Timoteo’s marital sex is hotter than his frantic grapplings with the barely responsive Italia. Something else is going on, possibly spiritual. The women both get pregnant simultaneously; the movie’s most tenderly erotic scene has Timoteo examining Italia himself, almost as though she were a skittish farm animal—or maybe a saint.
Played out against the intolerable melodrama of the dying daughter, Don’t Moveloses momentum well before the final convulsions that send it over the top. Castellitto brings a disarming hangdog quality to his portrait of a man gripped by inexplicable passion; as a filmmaker, however, he has a fondness for showy metaphoric compositions—a God’s eye view of a traffic accident, the words “I raped a woman” written on the sand. Still, Don’t Move is a movie of robust scenes. There’s no denying Cruz’s duck walk of proud victimization or the dance of savage glee with which she taunts her lover: “I had an abortion!”