In the 1951 film noir slash comedy slash bonkers thriller His Kind of Woman, Jim Backus (Thurston Howell from Gilligan's Island) gives his armchair critique of a swashbuckling movie starring Vincent Price's hammy movie star character. "That was one of the finest movies I've ever seen. They ought a make 'em all like that. None of this nonsense about social matters. People don't go to the movies to see how miserable the world is. They go there to eat popcorn and be happy!" he says, referring, of course, to the Italian Neorealism of the '40s and '50s that would go on to influence modern cinema. One year after that quote, Italian Neorealism would pretty much be over and in '53 the Italians would produce their first "Neo-Mythology" (their term, not mine) movie, based on Spartacus. By '57 they were churning out the popular peplum, or Sword-and-Sandal movies, starring such mythological and biblical heroes as Hercules, Samson, and Italy's own fictional strongman, Maciste. Incidentally, the star of Riccardo Freda's Sins of Rome, the Spartacus movie from '53, is Massimo Girotti, who also starred in what's regarded as the first Neorealist film, 1942's Ossessione.
It's this rich, tangled history of art and exploitation, realism and fantasy - arguably, the heart and soul of Italian cinema - that serves as the propelling force behind Il Futuro, something of a wonderful mash-up of contemporary, gritty youth neorealism, magic realism, film noir and old, faded movie star melodrama that finds Rutger Hauer in a supporting role as an actor who once played those matinee super heroes of the peplum films.
Set in Rome, siblings Bianca and Tomas have lost their parents in a car accident. Living by themselves, they're befriended by a couple of thuggish, bodybuilding brothers who take an interest in the teenage Tomas through his job at the local gym. They eventually recruit the brother and older sister to rob a forgotten movie star who lives alone in a remote mansion, with punk rock-ish Bianca serving as the bait who, once in, has the job of casing the joint in search of that old heist film chestnut, the safe. If a healthy dose of double-crossing, plot-twisting, graphically violent, redemptive, Tarantino-like neo-noir complete with references to Italian genre films and co-starring fallen stars of yesteryear is right up your alley, look elsewhere.
For those of you still reading, however, what you'll find is, on one hand, a meditative exploration of the dire consequences of grief, and, on the other, a glimpse of what happens to forgotten idols when they retreat into their caves and give up on the world.
Actually, you can say that the whole heist plot rather than just the safe is something of a MacGuffin - to use a famous noir plot device - merely used to drive the story to the intersection where two very different worlds meet. How else would a disaffected, nineteen year-old woman still in school be seduced by an old hermit?
Based on acclaimed Chilean author Roberto Bolaño's grim novella, Una novelita lumpen, Il Futuro isn't as dark as prose can be. Instead of focusing on the darker aspects of Bolaño's fiction, Chilean director Alicia Scherson's third feature does a pretty good job of framing Bolaño's themes of the mundanity of death, alienation and youth within her own cinematic idiosyncrasies. Much like Bolaño, she's interested in the "fabric of the particular" - a phrase used by Bolaño himself to describe art in general - in which bodybuilding crooks sit around playing crossword puzzles and watch game shows, for example; or where an anti-heroine walks around wearing a Masters of the Universe t-shirt while clearly not in control of her universe. So out of whack is Bianca's world, in fact, that in a touch of magic realism (it is Latin Americans at the helm, after all!) or Fellini-esque surrealism (take your pick!) the sun never sets, even at night. Respite from it only comes in the dark spaces that occupy the mansion of the once Mr. Universe, who, as his former title implies, has the ability to bring some order into Bianca's life and some hope for a brighter future in the midst of potential betrayal. Heavy film noir stuff, for sure. Or fantasy. Take your pick.
In this post-Dark Knight, noir, comic book cinematic world we live in, it's easy to see the once dashing Rutger Hauer as the retired hero living in isolation, blind as a bat (a role he can play now with his eyes closed as a result of his straight-to-video filmography), fat and willing to pay for love. Not exactly heroic, but perhaps fitting for the perfectly cast Dutch actor best known for playing Blade Runner's Roy Batty, an iconic villain if there ever was one who is given a nod in Il Futuro with the at times Vangelis-like soundtrack during the scenes in a mansion with a vague Ennis House feel to it. As far as '80s cinematic pop was concerned, Batty was the perfect synthesis of Bane's brute strength and The Joker's nihilism, both traits concealing a soulful core more human than human, as it turned out. It's this soulfulness that has always worked in Hauer's favor, adding dimension to a potentially flat character. It's no different in this case as his "Reg Morris" (an amalgam of two of the peplum genre's better known stars, Reg Park and Kirk Morris) isn't so much concerned about getting laid as he is in knowing more about this new lover he can't see in an unconscious attempt to break away from his on-screen alter-ego, Maciste. "Maciste can't stay with the girl," he informs Bianca. "He's kind of a stupid and lonely hero." Hauer's Reg Morris seems to have played Maciste all too well, it seems.
At only 39 years old, director Alicia Scherson went to film school in Cuba, came to the U.S. on a Fulbright and obtained a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is now living back in Chile, where she teaches film at the University of Chile. This is her first movie to receive an American release outside of the festival circuit, no doubt in part due to Hauer's fame and the cinematic renaissance of sorts he's going through.
At one point during Il Futuro, one of the bodybuilding thugs gives his armchair critique of one of the peplum films they're watching, "My father liked these films, they're terrible. There's no rhythm, shallow characters, arbitrary plot turns...." To which Bianca replies, "What do you know about art?" Fortunately for the future of cinema, director Scherson seems to know quite a bit.
Il Futuro plays Friday, October 25 to Thursday, October 31 at Landmark's Nuart Theatre.