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Peppino is an aging taxidermist constantly ridiculed for being short and somewhat creepy. He meets Valerio, a handsome young man fascinated by Peppino's work. Peppino, in turn, becomes entranced by Valerio and offers him a large salary to come work as his assistant. But when Valerio meets Deborah, their fledgling romance is threatened by an insanely jealous third wheel. Written by
Matteo Garrone's deeply morbid subjective reflection from Italy is an insightful musing of two characters, and then a third which works as an agitator. The short man finds the tall man at the zoo, where he is watching a vulture. The short guy, named Peppino, is a sweet talker. He's about 50, balding, under 5 feet tall. The tall guy, named Valerio, is a head turner, about 20, attractive, over 6 feet tall. As they struggle to recall where they've met before, the perspective periodically shifts from the humans to the vulture, a bird that survives by detecting dead meat. The picture is mangled, the sound is dampened, and we get an inverted look of the bird blinking its eyes. Valerio says animals are his strongest interest. Funny, says Peppino, they're also his. He is a taxidermist.
Peppino, with a light manner and a genial grin, is a beast of prey who likes to entice young men with his money and favors. Valerio, who is told extraordinary things about his Adonis-like looks, is not very smart, and likes to be charmed. Peppino works by artifice, taking Valerio to clubs and hiring hookers for parties; the two friends end up in bed with the girls, and Valerio doesn't see that for Peppino, the girls are the snare and he is the sitting duck.
The Embalmer is adept at camouflaging its real essence and rattling us with the shifts of the plot. Among the movie's charades are not all overstated, but eerily implicit. Does Peppino see himself as a homosexual, or as a philanderer who likes good buddies and is open-minded in bed? Does Valerio know Peppino wants him? Does Valerio favor Peppino's money or Deborah's abundant sexual skill? Is Valerio totally retarded? Twice he infuriates Deborah by standing her up; he continues go along with Peppino's insistence upon just one more time. Is it a defect or an advantage of the film that we don't always know what occurs? Another intended question I think, as we ponder over Valerio, a babe in the woods who, when he's not with the one he loves, loves the one he's with, if he loves at all.
This incredibly unsettling and implacable experience takes place largely in Italian beach towns, but in a gray season, against chilled, steeled skies. The sea is nonetheless far away and dejected, and Garrone's images bleed the life out of some scenes. The music is a sobbing, deeply haunting jazz abstraction. This is not a comedy or a sexploitation pic, but a prurient matter concerning two obsessed pursuants and their prey, whose physicality may have made life such a breeze for him that he never got the dexterity to live it.
It may sound absurd that a balding old midget could seduce an apparently heterosexual young Apollo out of the arms of an insatiable woman, but after Deborah checks Peppino out, she knows she has to take him seriously. What the short man wants, he goes after with skill, guile and desperate longing. And it's compelling to watch him maneuver.
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