Screen satire is a fickle game. Writers and directors of the genre inevitably rely on vulgar archetypes to sketch their commentary with clarity. Too often they fail to subvert these broad ideas, their films stagnating under a refusal to satirise. Cristina Comencini’s Italian-Spanish co-production Latin Lover, a send-up of the European screen industry and its fixation on male heartthrobs, is drawn so indelicately that it’s easy to dismiss it as a crude populist divertissement. Its characters have only simplistic distinctions, its script is awash with soap opera cliché, and it is visually garish. It succeeds by virtue of being restlessly evolving and entertaining, it’s characters and the ideas they represent constantly learning and changing, and their tethers to vague types eroding, under the sheer volume of the story’s vicissitudes. Its pleasures are earthy: big, exterior performances and scandalous drama, a dismissal of pretention, the madcap energy of ensemble comedy.
A coterie of brash and beautiful women, the wives and daughters of legendary (fictional) Italian actor Saverio Crispo, descend upon his Apulian hometown to commemorate his life and career. And boy, do they descend. To describe this epic sort-of-feminist soap as anything less than manic would be an injustice to Comencini’s efforts. She exhausts this frenzied family reunion of all latent comic possibilities. Fresh gossip is excavated, the past returns unwanted, relationships ignite and crumble; all parts are kept afloat and moving and new ones are introduced deep into the runtime, just when you glimpse a resolution lurking behind some lush villa corridor. Comencini has the skill and self-awareness to wear this glossy honest-to-goodness spirit loudly and proudly — the blasé aesthetic, the camera constantly tracking and panning as intuited by drama, finds an amusing marriage in the film’s mocking of the halcyon days of foreign cinema, fondly remembered and formally accomplished, but often chauvinistic in its sidelining of talented women. Don’t go in to Latin Lover expecting prestige cinema, because what you’ll find is a film that flaunts that very context as its plaything, matching the male exclusionary politics of the European festival circuit with the undermining force of a community of women.
Those women, all eight of them, are performed with brio by a veritable who’s who of the Italian and Spanish screen industries. Saverio’s two wives, at each other’s necks before they realise that their key similarity (an ex-husband) binds them, are played by Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes and the iconic Virna Lisi, who died shortly after production wrapped, making this her final screen appearance. Angela Finocchiaro, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Candela Peña, Nadeah Miranda, Pihla Viitala and Cecilia Zingaro are his daughters, running the gamut of screen types, from neurotic Woody Allen-type film director (Tedeschi’s Stéphanie) to sultry seductress (Nadeah Miranda’s late-arriving Shelley). The relative peace of this female dominion is disturbed by the arrival of stuntman Pedro (Lluís Homar), who threatens the placidity of their loving tribute with a secret from Saverio’s past. To divulge much more would be to deprive you of one of the film’s pleasures: its incendiary narrative. The root of the film’s drama is it’s eponymous cypher, whose absence is a hurdle before these women’s psychological comfort.
Saverio (Francesco Scianna) is a construction of singularly cinematic sexual fantasies — a lothario, a charming adulterer, a sprezzatura intellectual and an autodidact. The term ‘Latin lover’ first came into being thanks to the dark-toned, dashing looks of one Rudolph Valentino, who charmed the world and left it early, sending his admirers into tailspin. The film observes the history of this type. In hammy pastiche film clips, recreated in the crude styles of Fellini and Leone, amongst others, Saverio resembles a synonym for Marcello Mastroianni, the actor most commonly nicknamed by the term, even tipping his glasses forward and smirking like that cool charmer did in Fellini’s 8½. Other allusions (and there are many) confuse the mix; Comencini’s revised Latin Lover is a Frankenstein monster of a certain arthouse phenotype, resembling an idea of a man that’s ambiguous, and therefore ripe for deconstruction. He is an offstage concept, simultaneously the film’s centrifugal entity and its oppressive force. The women clamor to adore him as they struggle to find identity divorced from his.
This struggle is often uneasy: the film throws the stereotypical hysterics of femininity up as comic fodder before it gloriously validates these women, but there’s empowerment and pleasure once it makes that embrace. It’s feminist as Sofia Loren is feminist: a little vulgar, rooted in gendered essentialism, but exuding such vitality and force that the men sharing the screen look cowering by comparison. Latin Lover — a critique of the industry painted in broad comic strokes — deconstructs the mythos of masculinity, and gleefully shifts the spotlight on to the women whose lives thrive without it.