A gluttonous feast of Neapolitan art and culture, Ferzan Ozpetek’s new thriller Naples in Veils(Napoli velata) celebrates the oft-maligned Italian city as an ancient source of mystery, whose Baroque palaces and streets are the moody backdrop to a morbid story of lost love and repressed memories. Co-produced by Warner Bros. Entertainment Italia, the film has benefited from wide domestic holiday release and should have little trouble tapping into cultivated Italophile audiences abroad.
The sensual photography, music and locations are so entrancing, in fact, they help the viewer to overlook the weak storyline, which prefers psychological ambiguity to solid police work. Star Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Facing Windows) is subdued in the role of a medical examiner who finds the people she loves violently snatched away from her, and when she falls for a guy who comes on to her at a party, it’s the kiss of death for him.
The film’s tone and atmosphere make it almost a mirror image of Ozpetek’s recent thriller Red Istanbul, which came out last February. Both films describe evocative Mediterranean cities with roots stretching back in time, stripped of practically all the ugly reality of politics, sociology and organized crime. What’s left is a perspective that valorizes their beauty and artistry, and the culture and sophistication of the filmmakers, actors and artists who populate them.
Both cities are full of secrets and missing persons.
The film takes its name from Giuseppe Sanmartino’s extraordinary statue of the dead Christ, shown lying languidly and covered in a transparent shroud of flowing marble. Far from hiding the figure from sight, the veil accentuates the body underneath it, revealing it. Psychologically speaking, this is what is in store for Adriana (Mezzogiorno) as she works through the trauma of her lover’s abrupt disappearance.
The curtain opens on an avant-garde play being performed in a wealthy private home, where Pasquale (fine singer and stage actor Peppe Barra), dressed in ancient Roman togs, declaims to a standing audience of sophisticates. The party is in the aristocratic apartment of Adriana’s intriguing aunt Adele (Anna Buonaiuto), heavy on Baroque marble and with its own chapel incorporated.
At the party, Adriana is swept off her feet by the bold advances of blue-eyed Andrea (played by the up-and-coming Alessandro Borghi of Don’t Be Bad) and they spend the night together at her place. He’s sexy and masterful in the film's one sex scene, but he doesn’t show up for their first date at the archeology museum the following afternoon, or answer his phone. It’s quite the letdown for Adriana, who had been eyeing the museum’s classical nude statues lustfully.
It’s bad to be stood up, but nothing like the shock to come. In the hospital, while conducting a routine autopsy on a young murder victim, she discovers an unmistakable tattoo on the youth’s loins that identifies him as Andrea.
The police are already on her trail, led there by some artistic nude photos Andrea took of her on his phone while she was sleeping. With all her latent fears set in motion, Adriana begins to see the dead man’s ghost on the subway and even in her garden, but something always prevents them from meeting — until the ghost reveals himself as Andrea’s long-lost twin brother Luca.
His sudden appearance casts a veil of uncertainty over Andrea’s death. Are they the same person or not? That question keeps the audience guessing for the rest of the film, but the screenplay by Ozpetek, Valia Santella and co-producer Gianni Romoli opts for an arty, ambiguous ending rather than a definite resolution. It’s a choice that will turn off those audiences who want to wrap things up. There is a final twist, though, that gives Adriana’s abashed, monosyllabic character some much-needed depth and motivation.
Nicely interwoven into this terminal love story is Adriana’s circle of warm, helping family and friends. The gracious Catena (Luisa Ranieri), for instance, takes her to see a colorful clairvoyant about her ghost. In trademark Ozpetek style, several characters are casually gay, without any fuss being made about it, like the beautiful couple played by Lina Sastri and Isabella Ferrari.
A much more utilitarian character is Antonio (Biagio Forestieri), the police detective who falls for Adriana (after examining all those nude photos) and blithely reveals to her all the secrets of the case, as well as slipping her the evidence. Apart from this professional question mark, he seems out of step with a woman coming from such a creative family and circle of friends.
Lenser Gian Filippo Corticelli, who did the atmospheric lights-and-shadows cinematography on Red Istanbul, offers exciting contrasts between Naples’ Baroque splendors and Ivana Gargiulo’s ultra-modern sets, like Adriana’s chic but highly vulnerable apartment, or a maze of gleaming, crisscrossing escalators out of an Escher drawing. One of the film's recurring motifs is an eye-popping helicoid stairwell which the camera turns into the shape of an eye.
Also memorable is Pasquale Catalano’s soundtrack, written to the foot-tapping beat of contemporary music rooted in the past. Two Neapolitan songs by Enzo Gragnaniello are featured, including a heart-rending cover of "Vasame" ("Kiss Me"), sung by Arisa.