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Bold and unusual and entirely itself it may be, but Illuminata isn’t entirely successful as a film. Strange as it may seem, maybe writer/director/producer/actor John Turturro wants it that way.

This was only his second movie behind the camera and, being an actor of some renown, he was able to call in some of the finest talent of the day (1998) to help him get this love letter to thespianism, and in particular the live theatre, off the ground.

All the world’s a stage and the stage is a world in this busy adaptation of Brandan Cole’s play Imperfect Love, a Shakespeare in Love meets Noises Off backstage farce following the comings and goings of a theatre troupe in early-20th-century New York.

The main players are the theatre owner trying to keep the whole show on the road (Beverly D’Angelo), her right-hand-man, fixer, general factotum and husband (Donal McCann), the lead actress (Katherine Borowitz) worried about ingenues, a hot ingenue she needs to be worried about (Georgina Cates), the overlooked actor trying to get his moment in the spotlight (Rufus Sewell), the upcoming playwright trying to get his work staged (Turturro himself), a grand dame actress worried her day is done (Susan Sarandon), the alcoholic and bewildered old stager with a line from Shakespeare for every occasion (Ben Gazzara), the effete critic (Christopher Walken) ready to lavish unwarranted praise on any young actor he wants to chase to bed.

Around these main players wheel a milky way of lesser characters, all of them bitching, sneering, jostling, critiquing, dabbling with cocaine and trying to get into each other’s beds, while at the level of simple plot (there’s not much of it) playwright Tuccio (Turturro) tries to get his new, imperfect, not-quite-finished play into production and up to snuff while his theatrical fellow travellers wonder if he’s capable of it.

Christopher Walken leads the singing in the musical number
Christopher Walken at Peak Walken

Everyone “performs” the whole time. The register is declamatory, to the back of the room, with Turturro and Cole’s big joke being the good one about actors – that they can no longer tell the difference between being on and off. In this film everyone is on the whole time.

In spite of a musical number breaking things up a touch at one point, there is an overall lack of variety and trouble with pace (no light and shade). But also some banzai moments. Lovers of Christopher Walken at his ripest should check out the scene where the critic Bevalqua (Walken) tries to woo upcoming actor Marco (Bill Irwin), a remarkable display of Walken idiosyncracy – showing his legs, pulling up his shirt, hooting, laughing like a crazy man, while torrents of words pour out of his mouth as Walken tics and twitches away. It’s the whole film in a scene – Bevalqua trying to have his way with an impressionable minor player (who’s never thought of himself as anything except heterosexual) and using undiluted praise to gain access. The superficiality of these theatricals.

Sarandon, Gazzara and Sewell get similar “big” moments and so does Turturro, with the overall intention (entirely achieved) of capturing what it is that makes the theatre so intoxicating, as a place to work and as a space to perform. Lightning-in-a-bottle stuff .

Cinematographer Harris Savides shoots it with the same rich colour palette as Robin Standefer’s production design and Stephen Alesch’s art direction – this is a rich, Victorian, plush, flock-wallpaper-and-velvet affair, lovely to look at at all times.

It is funny, it is drole and it’s intentionally very theatrical, almost like a dry run for Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman 16 years later. Turturro kind of doesn’t care that it’s not particularly filmic and when the boom mike drops into shot here and there that seems to be a fourth wall statement more than a mistake (unless the cropping on the version I was watching was all to shit and it was a mistake).

There isn’t a genuine, which is to say non-theatrical, moment in it, which makes this a hard sell to people who aren’t theatrically disposed, until the very last moment, when Tuccio’s play finally hits the stage and… well why ruin a good thing.

Illuminata – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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