J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Wondrous Boccaccio

When you are waiting to possibly die, telling stories is a fine way to pass the time—especially if you have sworn off hanky-panky. Such is the position ten high-born friends find themselves in when they seek refuge in the countryside from the Black Death ravaging Renaissance Florence. They will learn how to cook for themselves and will take turns telling stories in Paolo & Vittorio Taviani’s Wondrous Boccaccio (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

The plague has reduced Florence to anarchy, so a group of friends retreats to a country villa. There they will either wait out the horrors racking the city or die in relative comfort. Like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (generally thought to be inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron), they will tell stories to entertain each other. The Taviani Brothers chose five out of the one hundred assorted tales and anecdotes, three of which live up to their implied greatest hits status and two that seem rather slight.

The telling of tales begins with perhaps the best, the almost Shakespearean saga of Catalina, a young wife who apparently dies of the plague and is callously cast away by her mother-in-law, only to be reclaimed first in death and then in life by her secret admirer. It is followed by the Medieval O. Henry tale of a lonely falconer who serves up his beloved bird to Giovanna the woman who spurned him, yet now has her own reasons for needing his now broiled companion. The Brothers Taviani also evoke the spirit of Pasolini with a wild and bawdy tale of cloistered sex and intrigue, mercifully sparing us the auteur’s excesses.

Unlike other Decameron adaptations and anthology films in general, the Tavianis are most interested in the framing narrative rather than the constituent tales. The opening scenes in Florence are strikingly stark and stylish, again inviting comparison to Pasolini and Terry Gilliam.

At times the cast is a bit difficult to distinguish from one another, like good Italian proletariats, but Josafat Vagni and Jasmine Trinca definitely stand out in the Falconer’s Tale. However, cinematographer Simone Zampagni, costumer Lina Nerli Taviani, and production designer Emita Frigato’s team are the real stars of the film. Wondrous just looks like a work of art worth framing.

Wondrous is actually often quite ribald, but it is such a classy package it always feels like proper prestige cinema (except maybe during the convent tale). Recommended for those who enjoy mature literary adaptations, Wondrous Boccaccio screens again tonight (4/22) and Sunday (4/26), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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