The Italian writer-director Saverio Constanzo has offered the Venice film festival some unpretentious calorific fun with this enjoyable film: a tasty, showbizzy crowd-pleaser and romantic melodrama with a vivid streak of surreal absurdity in the tradition of Federico Fellini’s The White Sheik or Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.
It is the tale of an unconventionally beautiful duckling who becomes more of a swan than the glamorous people she idolises; her dreams come true – or sort of true – in 1950s Rome in the heyday of the giant Cinecittà film studio. There are seductive performances from Lily James as the Liz Taylor-ish American movie diva, Willem Dafoe as her elegant, kindly confidant, Rachel Sennott as the disaffected up-and-coming actor who wants to unseat James’s star, and a lovely turn from relative newcomer Rebecca Antonaci as the bewildered and unlikely heroine.
Antonaci is Mimosa, a starstruck civilian, obsessed with films and movie stars, who manages over one bizarre night (followed by us in almost real time) to fluke her way into the enchanted garden of cinema celebrity, only to find it is not what she imagined. It is a tale which, in the hungover dawn of its title, redeems its cynicism and chaos with Cesare Pavese’s poem I Will Pass Through Piazza di Spagna.
Mimosa is unhappily engaged to a sweaty and pompous police captain and in the shade of her pretty sister, Iris (Sofia Panizzi), who is talent-spotted at the movies one afternoon by a lecherous studio underling who encourages her to try out for a background/extra role in a sword-and-sandal epic. Mimosa tags along to audition also and is grimly resigned to her hot sister getting picked and not her. But something in her submissive, unthreatening mousiness pleases the haughty star, preposterously called Josephine Esperanto (James), who, in full gold regalia is playing an Egyptian pharaoh – and wants Mimosa to be her handmaiden, in life as in art. Capricious and moody, Josephine insists on bringing Mimosa to dinner after the day’s shooting and then to an exclusive, louche party as her new best friend, declaring to the party guests that this blinking, saucer-eyed mute is an experimental Swedish poet. But when Josephine’s whims turn cruel, and the party decadent, Mimosa has to assert her artless decency and innocence.
Perhaps the film sags a bit when James is absent from the screen – she has here developed a new style in opaque hauteur which we haven’t seen before – and I would have liked to see more of the relationship between Mimosa and Josephine. But there is a great deal of exuberance and enjoyment here, perhaps especially in the daringly extended film-within-a-film scenes, featuring in one case Alba Rohrwacher as Alida Valli; later a scene from that extraordinarily cheesy Ancient Egypt epic is shown at some length. Not a terribly profound film, but delivered with real brio.