Turkish-Italian writer-director Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Steam: The Turkish Bath” was an evocative, subtly charming cross-cultural tale of an Italian who inherits a neighborhood bathhouse in Istanbul, only to be seduced by the place when he arrives to sell it. His new film is set in Rome, and the change in locale has not been beneficial. “His Secret Life” is a contrived forties-style domestic melodrama with a modern twist that also tries to comment on ethnic and economic divisions in contemporary Italian society. It’s rather like a florid Douglas Sirk picture that also wants to be socially conscious. The mixture fails to gel here–as it does, on the other hand, in “Far from Heaven.”
The script by Ozpetek and Gianni Romoli first introduces us to a distinctly upper-class Roman couple: Massimo (Andrea Renzi), a handsome, easygoing doctor, and his wife Antonia (Margherita Buy), a worker in a medical clinic. The two seem happy and loving, but tragedy strikes when Massimo is killed in a traffic mishap (allowing Ozpetek to give us one of those shocking moments so familiar ever since the one in “Meet Joe Black”). His death sends Antonia into an emotional tailspin, though her world-wise, straight-talking mother Veronica (Erica Blanc) tries to assist. In going through Massimo’s effects, Antonia finds a painting (“Le fate ignoranti,” the film’s original title) with an inscription that leads her to suspect it was given to her husband by a lover. Shocked at the thought that Massimo might have had a mistress, the grieving widow tries to return the piece to its giver, only to discover that the Michele she’s seeking is a young man (played by Stefano Accorsi, from the superior “The Last Kiss”), a produce seller in the local market whose apartment in the working-class district is the hub for a colorful, diverse crowd of immigrants and misfits. Initially Antonia and Michele resist connecting with one another, but gradually the widow becomes a regular part of his unconventional “family,” and he is drawn to her as well. The experience not only helps Antonia break out of her depression but encourages her to face life in a more open, non-judgmental fashion.
“His Secret Life”–a title far too lurid for the film’s sympathetic tone–certainly has its heart in the right place, and happily avoids any hint of sensationalism. At the same time it doesn’t avoid seeming melodramatic and sometimes positively mawkish. The emotional turmoil that the lead characters go through often has a soapoperatic cast, and many in the large group of supporting players that make up Michele’s coterie strive too hard to seem eccentric. Buy and Accorsi are fine as far as the script allows, and the chubby, jovial Serra Yilmaz makes a strong impression as the “den mother” of Michele’s apartment; even if a brief episode concerning her past seems a tad calculated, she pulls it off well. Renzi is affable enough in his brief turn as Massimo, and Blanc exhibits the sort of hard-nosed realism that always characterized Lauren Bacall’s performances. The film also admirably distinguishes between the different sides of Roman life, the one at Antonia and Massimo’s high-toned villa and the other around Michele’s messy communal flat–something for which Bruno Cesari’s production design and Pasquale Mari’s cinematography deserve a good deal of credit.
Given the narrative, it’s obvious that the Italian title of the picture had to be jettisoned for distribution in English-language areas: “Le fate ignoranti” would literally translate as “The Ignorant Fairies,” a moniker which would certainly draw bitter protests in this country. (It doesn’t carry the same note of slangish derision in the original, of course.) But however it’s called, “His Secret Life” is at once overly old-fashioned in its sudsy plotting and heavy-handed in its effort to modernize it with encomia to diversity and tolerance.