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N: Napoleon & Me
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by Marc Kandel

"When will folks stop trusting their dictator friends already?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: N & Me is an Italian period farce following Napoleon’s 1814 exile on Elba through the eyes of Martino, an angry young man of letters assigned to write his memoirs. Martino is drawn into a friendship with the former emperor despite his fervent belief that he must assassinate the deposed conqueror. When the delicate politics of the situation demand that Martino makes a choice between loyalty to his ideals and loyalty to his new friend, tragicomedy ensues.

The film appropriately utilizes elements of Commedia dell’arte- situational entanglements involving themes of adultery, envy, and love to name a few, played out through a set of characters such as the blustery yet clueless nobility, the clown, the shrew, the clever maid, the unrequited lover, so on and so forth.

The story allows for dramatic complexity as well, utilizing Napoleon’s exile and subsequent short-lived return to power as an effective backdrop, and despite the heavy influences of the Italian and French dramatic and comedic techniques, ends up borrowing its central ideology from Russian author Anton Chekov: People who want things very, very badly to the point that desire practically bakes off of them, yet time and time again they fail to muster themselves to lift even a finger to better their lot in life or accomplish a single goal.

Trust me it plays out far better than it sounds on paper for modern audiences more familiar with the adventures of lesser clowns like Hilary Duff or Ashton Kutcher than Arlecchino or Zanni. In fact, the film as a whole could easily find life on the stage, easily at home with Moliere or Shakespeare in structure, if not verse (I could find no documentation suggesting it has existed as a stage play, but it is adapted from a novel by Ernesto Ferrero).

It's a smart film that doesn’t skimp on the drama, and though I might have left the ending at the closure of a subplot involving Martino’s brother (a sublimely funny turnabout), the actual ending is appropriate as it underlines Martino’s inherent vacancy.

In this day and age, Martino would almost certainly be a blogger, filled to the brim with the internet courage of changing the world from a keyboard, completely impotent in the real world. He is pompous, self-absorbed- a trait that renders him clueless enough to have severe repercussions, he affects all the loathsome mannerisms of a man that fancies himself an artist yet barely produces work, pontificates in the place of action, and endangers others through his selfishness and pompous intellectual bullying- prompting at least two characters to place themselves in jeopardy in his place. A curious character to root for indeed, yet actor Elio Germano gives Martino just enough humanity that his unlikable traits are tempered with confusion, sadness, and self-disgust over his paralyzing ineffectuality. More Treplev than Hamlet, the character draws us in just enough to care about his situation despite his contemptuous, hypocritical attitudes.

The other performers are equally adept. Monica Belluci portrays a shrill, manipulative Baroness enjoying a tryst with Martino, who is completely smitten with her despite his failure to recognize his place as an instrument of sexual convenience. Daniel Auteuil is an affable, melancholy Napoleon whose kindly, charming demeanor seduces us as much as Martino into wanting to know the man better, concealing a master strategist who uses what we think we know to his advantage- an impressive performance. Other highlights are Diamantina Papucci as Martino’s shrewish sister continually plagued by advances from Massimo Ceccherini, a buffoonish friend of the family, and Francesca Inaudi as Mirella, the long suffering family maid who harbors an unrequited love for Martino.

An unexpected, delightful night of theater on the big screen, Nicely done. And if that’s too high-minded for your tastes, there’s even a fart joke. Enjoy.

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originally posted: 04/27/07 02:00:55
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