By the standards of American films dealing with gays, this Italian import seems like a positive throwback. The titular figure in “The Embalmer” is Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux), a taxidermist who just happens to be a dwarf. When he visits the zoo one day, his eye lights upon a couple and child, but his interest centers on the man–Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo), a lanky, handsome fellow who, as a casual conversation shows, is fascinated by Peppino’s knowledge of animals. At Peppino’s invitation, Valerio, who works in a modest restaurant, visits his workshop, and before long he’s become the fellow’s assistant and, after a family dispute, his roommate as well. But though Peppino makes a point of arranging some joint sessions for himself and Valerio with ladies of the evening, his real lust is for Valerio, though it’s unclear to what extent the young man ever realizes it or succumbs to his advances. (The film is very discreet, or more properly enigmatic, about such matters.) To complicate things, Peppino’s expensive lifestyle–especially with respect to guys like Valerio–gets him into debt with a Mafia chieftain, whom he repays by using his expertise to sew drugs into human corpses for safe and easy transit. And when Valerio links up with Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti), a manipulative type who well understands Peppino’s desires, a struggle ensues over their mutual object of interest, and a tragic showdown threatens to occur.
In many ways the picture is quite effective. Writer-director Matteo Garrone, who penned the script with Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, is adept at keeping things ambiguous and tense, and together with cinematographer Marco Onorato, he fashions a dark, murky atmosphere filled with intimations of disaster. The acting is excellent, too. Mahieux gives a performance of considerable nuance and depth, managing to make Peppino oddly sympathetic despite his calculation and a distinctly brutal side. Though Valerio has far fewer facets, Manzillo nicely conveys his indecision about where his loyalties lie. And the attractive Rocchetti certainly captures Deborah’s slyness and clever use of her sexual power.
Ultimately, however, “The Embalmer” strikes one as more than a little old-fashioned in its attitude toward the gay lifestyle. In his closeted stance and secretive mode of operation, Peppino is a character that would have seemed more plausible thirty years ago than in our present liberated age; his apparent self-loathing and isolation are qualities that marked homosexuals at a time when gay relationships still represented “the love that dare not speak its name” in the most literal sense. In fact, the picture that this one most recalls is Rod Steiger’s 1968 misfire “The Sergeant,” in which the actor, then at the height of his post-Oscar career, played an American army sergeant who found himself driven to distraction by a private in his platoon, played by John Philip Law (incidentally a very tall fellow, just like Manzillo). That picture was far too muffled and oblique, but at the time it was thought of as daring. Though it’s apparently set in the present, “The Embalmer” treats its subject with a similar kind of caution, a sense of discretion that seems curiously precious today. So despite its virtues, the picture comes across rather like something that has itself been disinterred from the fairly remote past. It might be well-preserved, but it still seems more than a little musty.