Inspired by an actual, years-old tabloid story, filmmaker Matteo Garrone's award winning The Embalmer is an intriguing art-house entry that also represents a real marketing challenge. Its curious story of the bizarre friendship forged by very short, 50-something taxidermist and flunky-to-the-Mob Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux) and tall, young, hunky waiter Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo) is surprisingly believable, yet it's the film's sparse, poetic, Felliniesque backdrops of mostly night-enshrouded cement-block suburbs that linger. While critics will deservedly put a positive stamp on the film, its dreamy, grim style may not be enough to overcome oddball content that steers too clear of the homoerotic frustrations that inform it.
Largely a nocturnal tale of lost souls that unfolds in singularly colorless corners of Italy, The Embalmer has Peppino and Valerio first meeting at a zoo. The dwarfish, friendly man is clearly smitten by the towering newcomer and suggests he work with him as an assistant. Valerio is game and soon the two are sharing more than the taxidermy workspace. At Peppino's urging, the two dive into the night scene, visiting sex clubs, picking up hookers, and partying together with all the gusto of hedonistic frat brothers.
Peppino enjoys certain vicarious thrills as Valerio easily scores. The ante is upped when Valerio moves into his pal's apartment. But, as is inevitable in these situations, the thrill is gone when Valerio takes up seriously with Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti), a young drifter as ordinary as she is pretty. A subplot involving Peppino's sordid work for the Mob only underscores the possibility of a destiny that will not take him down a path strewn with roses.
Valerio and Deborah eventually abandon Peppino and relocate near her parents. Peppino follows, stalks the couple, and tries to convince Valerio of his folly. As in film noir, this look at characters on the margin has the fittest surviving and the anti-hero headed toward doom.
The acting, cinematography and Nino Rota-like score here especially excel. Mahieux reverberates as a macabre version of that other short Italian, Danny DeVito. In spite of its strong assets, the film, which was also a selection in the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center's prestigious New Directors/New Films series and Cannes' Directors Fortnight, lacks the guts to explore what it's really about, in spite of the wholly expected tacked-on violence and tragedy. Art-house audiences, who demand more daring and commitment than this mesmerizing but basically teasing effort is willing to provide, will still find much that is seductive.