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ILLUMINATA

by: Michael Dequina

Review by James Berardinelli

Illuminata is John Turturro's love letter to early-20th Century theater. And, while not as effective as some other productions-within-a-film, such as Bullets Over Broadway or 1998's Shakespeare in Love, Illuminata still manages to develop an engaging storyline that incorporates uneven drama with sporadically amusing comedy. While the film occasionally suffers from the overly ambitious flaw of trying to tell the stories of too many characters, virtuoso performances by Katherine Borowitz, Christopher Walken, Susan Sarandon, and Bill Irwin help balance things out.

As a director, Turturro clearly doesn't have much interest in mainstream appeal. His first feature, 1993's Mac, was a small effort about a close-knit family of Italian immigrant house builders. It took Turturro 12 years to put that movie together, yet it was unable to find more than a limited art house audience. Illuminata only required 5 years to reach the screen, but, like Mac, it is unlikely to reap huge financial rewards. Theater buffs will probably be enchanted by the production, but the prospect of this film receiving any kind of significant distribution outside of the art film circuit is unlikely.

The movie follows the struggles of Tuccio (Turturro), a playwright trying to get his latest production on stage. The play, "Illuminata," is a vehicle for Rachel (Katherine Borowitz, Turturro's real-life partner), a top actress who also happens to be Tuccio's lover. Rachel's leading man, Dominique (Rufus Sewell), is a once popular idol who's making a comeback attempt. There are the usual behind-the-scenes squabbles as actors clash over lines and stage time, but the production eventually makes it through rehearsals and is shown in front of an audience. In attendance is Umberto Bevalaqua (Christopher Walken), the city's most influential theater critic. In his hands rests the success of any play... and he doesn't like "Illuminata."

There are about a dozen subplots dangling off the main one. Bevalaqua, an avowed homosexual, is infatuated with a member of Tuccio's troupe (Bill Irwin). Various cast members are bed-hopping. And Tuccio is intrigued by the seductive proposal of an aging-but-beloved actress, Celimene (Susan Sarandon), who offers him security and comfort if he will drop Rachel and work with her. There's also a death, an arrest, and an instance when a group of characters suddenly and unexpectedly breaks into song (in a scene that could have been lifted from a Dennis Potter teleplay).

The most intriguing character is perhaps Celimene, an actress to whom everything is a performance, whether she's essaying a character in front of hundreds of admirers or seducing Tuccio in the seclusion of her bedroom. Her work on stage, which draws raves from the public, is positively awful, and she's not much better in private. Sarandon plays the role with as much relish as she displayed in Bull Durham. It's not a large part, but it is a memorable one.

Equally good, and equally over-the-top, is Christopher Walken, whose turn as Bevalaqua takes tongue-in-cheek aim at critics everywhere. The character is powerful and immoral; his importance is described in this way: "One never knows what's good. That's what critics are for - to inform us." However, while Bevalaqua starts out as a completely fatuous individual, there is a scene late in the film when Walken brings out an element of humanity.

Katherine Borowitz, a stage actress whose only other significant film role was in Mac, provides Illuminata's dramatic anchor. While many of the actors around her give flamboyant performances, Borowitz plays it straight. The same is primarily true of Turturro, who, despite having the most screen time, readily

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