Being Italian

Rob Marshall’s Nine is a flop, but don’t blame it all on the film, writes Hugh Lilly

Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece has been parodied, admired and used as a crutch in films as varied as Ghost World, Pulp Fiction, CQ, I’m Not There, and Stardust Memories. Its opening even made an appearance in the 1993 action flick Falling Down, which begins with Michael Douglas’ nameless, frustrated white-collar corporate drone, fed up with the increasingly caustic world around him, escaping the traffic jam he’s stuck in by walking away from it, leaving his car on the freeway and opting instead for the stifling heat wave taking over downtown L.A. Fellini’s film tells the story of Guido Anselmi, a director struggling to get on with his next project, a science fiction film. Increasingly wary of the pressure being placed upon him, he withdraws into his dreams, his desires, and his memories of all the women he’s known throughout his life—ostensibly so that he can emerge and begin working again.

In the early-1980s, Arthur Kopit, Maury Yeston and Mario Fratti wrote and staged a musical loosely based on the film, changing the title to Nine and altering the protagonist’s last name to Contini. While Fellini’s film derives its name from the fact that the director had previously made six full-length films, two short films, and had co-directed one feature—thus becomes his eighth-and-a-half film—Yeston felt that “adding music [to ] is like half a [production] number more,” hence the title change. While it found success on Broadway, the West End and elsewhere, Rob Marshall’s new film version—a movie made out of a musical derived from a film—is basically a complete disaster.

With a script co-written by the late director Anthony Minghella and Michael Tolkin, with the success of 2002’s multi-award-winning Chicago under his belt—and with a stellar cast including Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson and, uh, The Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie—Marshall’s film should have been a sure success. Filmed mostly in London and at Cinecittà studios in Rome, the production looks spectacular but, largely because while the songs from the original production evidently work on stage, they aren’t memorable—or filmable enough, cinematic enough—to work on screen, despite the swift camerawork and hugely elaborate sets.

Three new songs were added to the film, written by Yeston apparently with specific actress’ voices in mind. One of these, Kate Hudson’s “Cinema Italiano” is one of the most disturbingly badly-written songs to appear in any film in the last ten years. It is a dispiritingly atrocious, both lyrically and musically—and Hudson’s delivery is only slightly better than the garish production design around her. While she traipses up and down a catwalk, paparazzo cameras flashing a mile a minute all around, film’s cinematography invokes the worst tropes from pop and rap music videos and combines that with the aesthetic of a cheap Fashion TV runway special. Meanwhile, the lyrics of the irritating “Be Italian” consist of little else than those two words, and songs like “A Call from the Vatican” and “I Can’t Make This Movie” exist merely to inch the narrative forward; they’re forgotten even before the credits roll.

But though the songs may be mostly terribly uninteresting, the acting in between is top-notch. Day-Lewis does a pretty good job in the lead role with what is a mostly perfunctory script meant to service the musical numbers, and Marion Cotillard is fantastic as Guido’s wife, Luisa. The less said, though, about Fergie’s gratuitously whorish take on the character of Saraghina, the better.

Overall, Nine is a disappointing attempt at bringing a musical to the screen—but only because the musical seems so insistent on remaining where it belongs: on stage, surrounded by the immediacy of live performance and audience reaction, instead of snap-frozen for cinematic consumption.

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