James Berardinelli

For Roseanna

Paul Weiland’s For Roseanna gives new meaning to the phrase “a grave film.” This comedy — the artsy equivalent of Weekend at Bernie’s — gets a lot of its humor from death, dying, and the act of dragging corpses from place to place. Strangely, however, while the movie is sporadically funny, it’s rarely laugh-aloud hilarious, and many of the dramatic elements seem more obligatory than heartfelt. There’s something dissatisfying about For Roseanna — as if it’s a short that someone tried to stretch to feature length.

Jean Reno has the comic aptitude of a Charlie Chaplin — a flexible body and expressive features. He’s very much at home doing anything from the serious, tense work of The Professional to the silly froth of The Visitors (a big hit overseas but a colossal flop in the United States). This makes him an excellent choice for Marcello, who has to cope with the loss of a daughter and the illness of his wife while engaging in all sorts of foolish antics to ensure that there will still be a grave available for her when she dies.

The problem is that the graveyard where Marcello’s daughter is buried is nearly full, and his wife, Roseanna (Mercedes Ruehl), who has a weak heart, wants to be laid to rest next to her child. The cemetery can’t expand, because Capestro (Luigi Diberti), the man who owns the adjacent land, refuses to sell. As a result, Marcello has to hope that everyone in and around his little village stays alive. To that end, he engages in a variety of absurd activities: directing traffic after church so there are no accidents, driving drunks home so they don’t get behind the wheel, snatching cigarettes out of peoples’ mouths and putting them out, and bringing flowers and words of support to hospital patients. Sometimes, however, Marcello’s actions don’t work out quite as he planned. Meanwhile, Roseanna, who recognizes that her heart could give out at any time, is busy planning for her husband’s future happiness by trying to hook him up with her younger sister, Cecilia (Polly Walker). Unfortunately, Marcello and Cecilia don’t get along, and she is attracted to Antonio (Mark Frankel), a dashing young attorney who happens to be Capestro’s nephew.

Sitting through For Roseanna certainly isn’t an unpleasant experience, but the film never goes far enough. The comedy is safe (or as safe as it can be when the subject matter involves dead bodies), the romance is tepid, and the drama is restrained. Aside from Reno, who throws himself wholeheartedly into the role of Marcello, there’s no standout performance. Mercedes Ruehl’s Roseanna is actually rather dull, and Polly Walker (Enchanted April), despite being attractive, doesn’t add much.

Those looking for romance are likely to be the most disappointed by For Roseanna. As a love story, it leaves a lot to be desired. The most heartfelt emotion evident between Marcello and his wife is affection — theirs is certainly not a white-hot marriage. Worse still is the relationship between Cecilia and Antonio, which is about as dull, passionless, and unappealing as any motion picture love affair can get. (Does anyone really want them together in the end?) And, while there are hints of some sort of romantic tension between Cecilia and Marcello, it’s never developed into anything tangible, which is unfortunate, because these two might have made an interesting couple.

For Roseanna was filmed on-location in Italy with an international cast and crew, yet everyone inexplicably speaks English. (There’s nothing new about this phenomenon, but I’ve become acutely aware of it since seeing Killer Condom, a European movie set in the United States where everyone speaks German.) The film is clearly designed for American consumption, and will represent Fine Line Features’ summer “counterprogramming.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer more than a marginal diversion. Then again, in the midst of so many action-oriented blockbusters, maybe For Roseanna’s uncertain blend of comedy, romance, and drama will be enough to generate interest. If nothing else, it’s at least a change of pace.