Matteo Garrone once again takes us on a trip through the dark recesses of desire and obsession in his psychological 'romantic' drama, "L'imbalsamatore" [Eng. Title: The Taxidermist aka The Embalmer]. So much so that the grey decaying Neapolitan landscape will end up becoming one of its few cheery highlights...
The tone of the film is set when we're introduced to Peppino - a short, fifty-something taxidermist, examining a heap of exotic animal-corpses in the very first scene - this is certainly not going to be a ride in the park. We could also foresee that the film will be about coveting and possessing trophies - something that might require the skills of a taxidermist. Or cunning, perhaps...
Young and handsome Valerio is with his girlfriend and her son, enjoying a day out at the zoo, when Peppino first catches glimpse of him. Smitten instantly, Peppino approaches them and initiates a conversation by the vulture's enclosure. We hear most of their conversation from the viewpoint of the vulture - watching them from inside the cage, complete with distorted vision and batting eyelids. We notice Valerio's fascination for Peppino's profession, and his nonchalant attitude towards the girlfriend - she is left waiting for him to finish his chat with Peppino. Perhaps he's trying to tell her something - but more likely, he is genuinely interested in what Peppino does for a living, having inherited a few stuffed animals of his own from his late hunter-father.
When Peppino offers Valerio a generously paid job to work as his assistant, he accepts, and before long he'll be moving into Peppino's apartment - and we can only guess where this is heading. Peppino showers him with expensive gifts and also requisitions prostitutes for their foursomes - not only to use these occasions as an excuse to get closer to him, but also in the hope of turning Valerio into a dependent pet. It seems to work for a while - until Valerio is set eyes on by foxy brunette Deborah - a recently fired garage receptionist determined to win him, even using her self-professed oral-sex skills if necessary. But Peppino is no pushover either - he has Camorra-connections (a Neapolitan thing) - sewing up corpses to transport drugs when instructed, and is subsequently liquid enough to entice Valerio with mouthwatering gifts like luxury holidays. Who wins the right to Valerio's body is ultimately of less relevance to the film, than its merciless character-study of the aforementioned protagonists.
While an insecure Peppino wears his heart on his sleeve (he does have a heart), his intentions are nevertheless morbidly tinged with obsession. Meanwhile, the good-looking Valerio has plainly no time to fall in love with anyone - he's too busy lapping up the attention everyone showers on him. On more than one occasion, we get the impression that he wouldn't hesitate to swing either way if he chooses, established through his frequent vacillation in relation to Deborah and Peppino's advances. Both, Peppino and Valerio, are repulsive as much as they're likeable. Obviously Garrone's intention is not to show them in their best possible light - even the landscape is set in a bleakly grey and dull Naples - not quite the Mediterranean skies we're usually served up in Italian films.
But in the process we're given a haunting insight into the 'greyness' of urban relationships - neither black nor white - self-centred, possessive, and devoid of values. The film is very well executed even if it demands the viewer to have an open mind. The performance by Ernesto Mahieux who plays Peppino helps greatly in lifting the film above the ordinary - for which he was also rightfully awarded a David, as is the impeccable casting choice of Elisabetta Rocchetti as the determined and steely-nerved Deborah. I also loved the soundtrack and music by Banda Osiris which immensely aides the narrative, and of course, the uncompromising direction as ever by Matteo Garrone. The film is Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon DVD Link [PAL]
The Nudity: Elisabetta Rocchetti and others
The film features brief instances of nudity from Elisabetta Rocchetti who plays the character Deborah, in a sex scene with Valerio (the handsome Valerio Foglia Manzillo). There is an additional nude scene of the prostitutes with Peppino and Valerio.