The association of artistic genius and madness is a banal one, but this film starring Kim Rossi Stweart is a subtle and sadly convincing portrayal of the tragic short life of contemporary Italian jazz great Luca Flores, whose demons caught up with him. Walter Veltroni, from 2001 to 2008 the popular leftist mayor of Rome, wrote a book about Flores called 'The Disk of the World' on which this beautifully photographed film biography is based. With its harmonious earth tones and recognizable but never clichéd images of Florence, the cinematography is another reason for watching, besides the performance of Stewart and a good supporting cast and the music itself, which evokes a now legendary musician who played with Chet Baker and Dave Holland and left a legacy of fine recordings but took his life in 1995 at the age of thirty-nine.
Stewart is a handsome and charismatic actor, one of Italy's chief current matinée idols, who seems to have an innate mystery and distance and sadness about him. His recent outstanding performances include the repentant father of the severely disabled boy in Gianni Amelio's powerful 2004 'The Keys to the House'/'Le chiavi di casa,' the aptly named "Il Freddo" (the Cold One) in veteran actor Michele Placido's 2005 directorial debut 'Criminal Romance,' and the husband in his own strong 2006 beginning as a helmer, 'Along the Ridge'/'Ance libero va bene.'
Flores' father Giovanni (Michele Placido) was a geologist who worked in Cuba and Belize and then took the family to Mozambique, where (as the film shows it) Luca fell free from a car that crashed, killing his mother. He never overcame this trauma.
The film elides early events, showing Luca in a public audition for the Luigi Cherubini conservatory of music in Florence in which he dazzles everyone by sight-reading a challenging solo piece by Rachmaninof with concert quality even though he's had no previous formal training. The next thing we know two young local jazzmen, Alessandro (Claudio Gioè) and Raffaele (Roberto De Francesco), give Luca a Bud Powell record and with some disapproval from his father Luca starts to play in a successful jazz trio with the pair in a club and they get a glowing national review right away that leads to recordings. At the club Cinzia (Jasmine Trinca) falls for him and takes him home and a long love affair follows, but he turns bitter and suspicious toward her just when she's pregnant. He remains in touch with his brother and sisters Pablo (Corso Salani), Heidi (Mariella Valentini), Baba (Paola Cortellesi), and especially close to Baba. Even when he and Cinzia are estranged she continues to love him and is the only one who can help him at some moments of crisis.
In the sequences that follow the early successes, things slow down as the tone darkens and the "male oscuro" increasingly hovers over Luca, who despite his love of family and of Cinzia further and further withdraws into his music--or, in moments of utter confusion, into obsessively repeated scales. After a particularly bad crisis, Luca goes back to the Africa of his childhood where he rides thousands of kilometers on a motorcycle, finds peace, and returns to music. But he also relives the traumatic accident. Along with whatever mental instability he had, Flores had a terrible case of survival guilt. He had the impression that he was killing everybody. When Chet Baker fell from the balcony and died in 1988, Flores said he'd killed him with his scales.
It's the sad old story of doomed genius. The later sequences are hard to watch, not because they are maudlin or forced-- this is the most tasteful and understated of films--but because the ending is so inevitable. Taste triumphs here, and a visual style so consistent that its browns and soft lights soak into your brain.
Shown at the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center June 2008.
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