Wednesday, June 18, 1997






FOR ROSEANNA: Directed by Paul Weiland, written by Saul Turteltaub. Photographed by Henry Braham. Edited by Martin Walsh. With Jean Reno, Mercedes Ruehl, and Polly Walker. PG-13, 99 minutes. Opens in Manhattan

Marcello has a problem. His terminally ill wife, Roseanna, has one last wish: to be buried in the local cemetery next to their daughter who died many years ago. Unfortunately, there are only three plots left in the cemetery and they are going fast.

That’s the premise of director Paul Weiland’s new film, which stars Jean Reno as Marcello and Mercedes Ruehl as Roseanna.

The film attempts to blend farce and romance with a touch of black humor, and under the circumstances, the two actors work very well together despite their cultural differences.

Reno, from France, is perhaps best known as the kindly hit man in Luc Besson’s film “The Professional.” Ruehl, from the United States, is a master at playing offbeat, somewhat kooky suburban women. She won an Oscar for her role in “The Fisher King.”

But in this film, both actors prove their mettle, pulling off believable Italian accents in the process.

Reno is dandy as the well-meaning, devoted, somewhat oafish tavern owner who will stop at nothing-short of murder-to ensure that his wife’s last wish is granted.

Ruehl is equally good as the salt-of-the-earth Italian wife, so concerned for her husband that she is planning for him after she’s gone: She wants him to marry her sister Cecilia (Polly Walker).

Reno and Ruehl click whenever they are alone on-screen generating a sense of a long-married, devoted couple. They have endured life’s accidents and are now more deeply in love. It’s a fine performance, as far as it goes-and it’s the only thing this film has going for it.

The script by veteran television writer-producer Saul Turteltaub (“The Jackie Gleason Show”), is hardly a step above that of a TV-movie-of-the-week. The characters lack depth, the plot lacks resonance, and the story is told virtually in words (not images)-with the exception of a rather arty, non-verbal opening that ultimately goes nowhere. (A troop of circus performers, in makeup, are burying one of the troupe in the local cemetery.)

The biggest problem, however, is giving Marcello a ridiculous task: that of ensuring that his wife gets her spot in the cemetery and, therefore, devoting his time to preventing other people in town from dying.

This is a one-note, one-laugh mission at best. Marcello can pull only so many cigarettes from his patrons’ mouths or direct town traffic from accidents for so long. But it is milked here for nearly half the film, with disastrous effect.

Any character foolish enough to take on such a goal is not someone with whom the audience can easily identify. As a result, Marcello quickly devolves into something of a cartoon, and so does his mission. As Marcello goes, so goes this movie.

The plot totters between humor and drama, and does neither well. The story isn’t helped by numerous coincidences, a continual series of sentimental scenes-invariably underlined with very loud and sentimental music and a chorus of card-playing tavern regulars who seem to be a staple in movies set in small-town Italy.

The “bad guy” Capestro (Luigi Diberti), the wealthy padrone who refuses to sell a few acres of his vast estate so the cemetery can be expanded, doesn’t fare much better. He carries a dark secret that ultimately is neither very dark nor very secret.

There are a few surprises in this film, and the one genuine surprise as the end is seriously undercut. By the time it happens, we don’t care what happens to anybody.

Perhaps what is most astonishing about this movie is that it was shot on location in the hilltop town of Sermoneta in the Lazio region of Italy, south of Rome. Never has Italy looked so gray, so boring, and lifeless. How the filmmakers made a quaint hill-town look like London in the fog is anyone’s guess.