Mexican beauty Camilla hopes to rise above her station by marrying a wealthy American. That is complicated by meeting Arturo Bandini, a first-generation Italian hoping to land a writing career and a blue-eyed blonde on his arm.
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L.A. in the early 1930's: racism, poverty, and disease color the Bunker Hill neighborhood where Arturo Bandini, a lover of men and beasts alike, has arrived from Colorado to write the great Los Angeles novel. After six months and down to his last nickel, he orders a cup of coffee, served by Camilla Lopez, beautiful, self-possessed, and Mexican. Arturo gets advice, encouragement, and an occasional check from H.L. Mencken, so he keeps writing and he keeps seeing Camilla. But, he's mean to her for no apparent reason, so the relationship sputters. A housekeeper from back East suggests a way out of his jealously and fears. "Camilla Bandini": is it in the cards? Written by
Robert Towne's obvious love affair with John Fante's Depression Era novel, ASK THE DUST, is evident throughout this somewhat over-long film. While the story is a bit clumsy and self-indulgent with so many sidebars that the momentum of the movie gets bogged down in the telling, there are enough fine attributes to make it a recommended evening of reminiscence about Los Angeles, the City of the Angels in the 1930s.
Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) narrates the tale of a lad from Colorado with one published story in a magazine edited by H.L. Mencken who moves to Los Angeles' Bunker Hill apartments to write his big novel. The city of LA has never seemed so strange as it seems with Caleb Deschanel's magnificent photography outlining a city filled with dust blown miscreants - people with dreams at varying stages of dissolution. Arturo quickly becomes penniless, is pestered for rent by landlady Mrs. Hargraves (Dame Eileen Atkins) and for handouts by drunkard Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), and still a virgin he plies his vision as a writer in a local café where he encounters the beautiful Camilla (way too much of a play on the character of Dumas' 'Camille'...). The two play a battle of wits and insults to cover their apparent infatuation with each other: Mexican Camilla is looking for a wealthy 'white man' to raise her out of her illiterate station and Arturo is looking for a sexual encounter to spur his writing.
During their extended 'courting' Arturo is vamped by Vera Rivkin (Idina Menzel), a Jewish housekeeper with grossly deformed legs who dreams of a man who will call her beautiful, and in a touching encounter Arturo displays the kind vulnerability lying under his rather callous and naive exterior.
Arturo and Camilla at last connect, and in a Laguna beach house they fall under the spell of love, a state that ends tragically, like the dust from the desert winds burying all hopes of the people of Southern California.
The story is a bit clunky and the dialogue feels forced at times but it is always a pleasure to see the work of Farrell, Hayek, Atkins, and Sutherland. The true beauty of this truly beautiful film is in the atmosphere and the mood captured by Towne and Deschanel. Their work offers a mood piece that forgives some of the awkwardness of the threadbare story and shows off the actors well. The film may move a bit too slowly for some, but for others, this is a moment of history well captured. Grady Harp
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