Hellenga (Philosophy Made Simple, 2006, etc.) returns to Florence, the setting of his celebrated first novel (The Sixteen Pleasures, 1994), this time to chronicle the fictional (so far) production of the movie version of said novel.
Film rights to The Sixteen Pleasures, Margot Harrington’s memoir of her youthful adventures as a book conservator after the 1966 Florentine floods, have finally emerged from turnaround hell. Margot and her new lover, Woody, a classics professor whose daughter was killed in a terrorist attack at a Bologna train station, are writing the screenplay. Producer Esther has her own script, which “dumbs down” Margot’s story of her discovery of that book of 16 erotic sonnets with illustrations, and her bittersweet affair with Italian lothario Sandro, into a conventional romantic comedy, The Italian Lover. Everyone “above the line” on this picture has issues: Margot is facing intimations of lonely old age; Woody is ambivalent about remaining in Italy after he is sued for rescuing an abused dog; Esther is reeling from her recent divorce. Director Michael is dying of prostate cancer; his wife Beryl’s total immersion in Italian permits an (almost) guilt-free fling with Zanni, who’s starring as Sandro. Leading lady Miranda, who plays 29-year-old Margot, is disappointed that her screen lover Zanni prefers an older woman, and she sides with Margot in the clash of the dueling screenplays. Large chunks of filmmaking how-to may appeal only to movie mavens, but Hellenga expounds on technique to illuminate subtext, as when “middling director” Michael, striving for a final masterpiece, attempts an Altmanesque tracking shot and is stranded on a malfunctioning crane high above the Piazza Degli Uffizi. Hellenga doesn’t always heed Michael’s storytelling advice, “Intentionality is the enemy.” The characters’ actions often seem arbitrary and stage-directed, such as Beryl’s abrupt retreat to fidelity. The mood is meditative since Margot and the other principals are saying “goodbye to all that,” whatever, in each case, “that” may be.
Hellenga’s delicacy and insight redeem what might have been a mere retrospective rehash of Pleasures.