The Embalmer

It's clear to see, I love you more than you love me
Matteo Garrone
Ernesto Mahieux, Valerio Foglia Manzillo, Elisabetta Rocchetti
The Setup: 
Closeted gangster tries to lure a pretty boy and keep him around.

A reader wrote me to suggest this one, and it sounded right in line with the disturbing and vaguely creepy homo stuff I like, so to the top of my list it went. This is an Italian film from 2002 directed by Matteo Garrone, who has recently gained notoriety for Gomorrah, about suburban Italian mafia, which all the critics creamed their pants over but I actually had a wonderful nap during since it was so long and droning. But anyway--artsy pedigree.

So although the disc is marked "The Embalmer," the actual title when the movie starts is "The Taxidermist," which is slightly more accurate. We see Peppino, the taxidermist in question, as he walks around a zoo. He seems to be in his fifties and is extremely short. He soon approaches a young man, woman and small boy and starts engaging them in a thematically-relevant discussion about the vulture they're looking at, and how it sticks its entire head into the carcass it's eating, and how they perform a useful service to nature by cleaning up the garbage. While this is happening we see them from the vulture's point of view, with an effect to simulate the look of blinking bird eyes.

We now have some beautiful credits that feature black text against a light, overexposed ocean dotted with floating birds. We pick up at Peppino's studio, where he stuffs and mounts dead animals. We see him sanding down wood or something to go inside a carcass, throwing dust all over, but without wearing a face mask! Valerio, the young hunk from the zoo [who is quite attractive in every physical way] stops by, and soon Peppino offers him a job, paying him much more than he currently makes. When Valerio breaks up with his girlfriend, Peppino invites him to move in, which he does. Their business does well with both of them working, and Peppino gives Valerio a RING with his first paycheck. It seems they're getting married--and only one of them is aware of it.

Peppino arranges two prostitutes to come and have a double date with the guys. They all do it in the same room. We find out Peppino works for the mafia. On their next double date with prostitutes, Valerio takes his woman into the next room, Peppino follows him, determined that they will all do it in the same bed. He is perpetually laughing and joking, but one senses a menace behind everything. In the morning, Peppino is sleeping with his head resting on Valerio.

By now one has had cause to notice that this film features a lot of beautiful compositions and careful arrangements of color. Peppino is called to see the mafia don he has been avoiding, and is sent on an assignment. He takes Valerio with him. Peppino goes and does something where he's reaching into the chest of a human corpse--not unlike we heard the vultures do, at the beginning--although I was never quite sure what was specifically happening [though I think it has to do with smuggling drugs]. While he's at work, Valerio goes out, picks up a woman, Deborah, and stays out with her all night, which annoys Peppino. Then it turns out Valerio has invited Deborah along with them on the rest of the trip, which also does not sit well at all with Peppino. There is a feeling that Valerio is starting to get a little creeped out by Peppino, and wants this woman around to provide a barrier between them. When they arrive at their hotel, we find that Peppino booked only one room with one bed, because of some convention that is supposedly going on.

Peppino meets with the mafia don again, who refers to Peppino's affections for pretty young men, while Peppino pretends to have no idea what he's talking about. Soon Valerio is having dreams that Peppino is coming into bed with him and getting under the covers to give him head. Valerio refuses the next round of prostitutes because Deborah wouldn't like it, causing Peppino to start getting a little nasty with "joking" remarks about how Valerio is going soft and getting pussywhipped. Deborah has a scene with Peppino where she tells him he reminds her of a gay friend, but Peppino, who doesn't think of himself as gay, bristles, and tells her she has no idea what she's risking, and kindly suggests that she fuck off. All this tension reaches a head, and Valerio tells Peppino he is moving out to go live with Deborah. There is a very moving little scene as Peppino is on a yacht with the mafia don, weeping silently to himself, but without telling anyone what he's upset about. The don assumes it's just his typical troubles with boys, which Peppino still won't acknowledge.

It all comes to a reasonably satisfying and somewhat surprising resolution. Ultimately it all seems a little loose and unstructured, but I think this is just subtlety rather than carelessness [and makes me think I would get more out of Gomorrah if I now saw it again]. There are certain elements that are left purposely vague--there are times when it seems as though Valerio might have knowingly given in to sex with Peppino, but the film leaves the scene out and just forces you to guess from what we see afterward--but ultimately they make the whole thing more interesting and keep you thinking. Although they also may result in the vague sense of distance and non-engagement I felt throughout. This one is more for the head and only makes slight impressions on the heart.

But the emotional heft it does have, pale as it is, may be a little deeper and longer-lasting. Valerio is a bit sad as a clueless pretty boy getting to an age where he may have to make some effort on his own behalf--something he seems to take little interest in--helping us understand that maybe time spent with Peppino is a little respite in that adolescent world where someone adores him and takes care of him and he need do nothing. But the real figure here is Peppino, who... well, who knows what he thinks himself, but he is very defensive against anyone thinking he might be homosexual. He's also, given his mafia connections, very comfortable edging into a joking / threatening demeanor, or razzing Valerio for being castrated by women when actually he's just trying to lure him into closer contact with himself. The tragedy is, due to Peppino's closetedness and shame, you feel he wouldn't be able to let himself truly enjoy Valerio if he were able to get him. The lingering moment for me was Peppino crying to himself in front of the mafia don, but unable to tell them why [he simply doesn't respond], and the Don saying to his wife that it's because of the boys Peppino pursues, as though she'll know immediately that it could only end in tragedy.

Some may find Peppino an offensive figure, because he truly is a homosexual predator, trying to lure unsuspecting pretty boys into things they wouldn't otherwise want to do, but I've always felt that political correctness ruins conversation. No one is saying that Peppino is admirable, but I think it's far less interesting to judge him than to see him for what he is, which is a sad little guy who not only can't admit what he wants to himself, but wouldn't have the terms to even conceptualize it to himself if he did. As the credits play over a shot of a deserted canalside, slowly the figure of Peppino fades in, walking away, and this is kind of how he remains through the entire movie--a distant, lonely, elusive figure.

This is one of those movies I thought was just okay when I turned it off, but in the week or so since has grown in my estimation, as the scenes become richer upon reflection, and now the figure of Peppino seems very rich and tragic. So, maybe only partly satisfying to watch, but very rewarding to have seen.

Should you watch it: 

If you like gay-ish movies that are a little edgy and outside the mainstream.