Magnificent Presence (Magnifica Presenza) is a beautifully cast, deftly executed film. Writer/director Ferzan Özpetek handles the deliciously audacious premise so adroitly we happily accept its plausibility. At the heart of his success is his light touch with the script, expert casting and a profound trust in his actors.
The adorkable protagonist, Pietro Pontechievello, is a circumspect and solitary romantic. A pastry chef by night, he’s a frustrated actor who can’t seem to get past the first audition — a problem mirrored in his dating life.
For reasons only hinted at (una crisi di nervi, perhaps?), he’s been sharing tight quarters (and a bed) with his vivacious cousin Maria (Paola Minaccioni), who has man trouble of her own. When he stumbles onto a surprisingly affordable reliquary of an apartment in an upscale neighbourhood of Rome, he jumps at the opportunity for independence.
The film takes a comically supernatural turn when we discover just why the frozen-in-time apartment is so affordable — it comes with a paranormal resident theatre company who believe it’s 1943 and their beloved Italy is still entrenched in war.
While his small circle of earthly friends contemplate his loosening grip on reality, Pietro becomes enthralled with the cryptic anti-fascist intrigues of his ghostly flatmates and is propelled on a crusade to separate truth from fiction.
Pietro and his flesh-and-blood supporters are each living subtle fictions of their own devising (reflecting the lies we casually tell ourselves to smooth life’s rougher edges). It’s the ghostly cabal of actors who seem to have the firmer hold on truth, however arcane and outdated their understanding of current events.
As Pietro, Italian actor Elio Germano delivers a delicate and perceptive performance, creating a fully realized portrayal of a yet-to-be fully realized individual — a challenge the award-winning actor handles with quiet perfection. Sitting through the credits is de rigueur at a film festival, and here you’ll be rewarded with an actor’s master class in stillness.
Playing the ghosts of Italian war-era stage actors is an invitation for the supporting cast to invoke ham-fisted, broadly sketched caricatures. But Özpetek’s troupe is pitch-perfect and jewel-toned; they glitter with a depth of colour that is rich but never gaudy. Their resulting believability further blurs the line between fiction and reality.
Özpetek has previously offered richly crafted films that focused on queer identity — 1997’s Hamam (also known as Steam: The Turkish Bath) and His Secret Life (Le Fate Ignoranti) in 2001. Magnificent Presence is the third in his perhaps unintentional trilogy of outsider-themed films, and it’s no less successful for taking queerness out of the spotlight and weaving it into the overall texture.
Pietro is a complicated character who receives a sophisticated treatment. He is not closeted, but he doesn’t “just happen to be gay” (a description as insipidly offensive as suggesting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo “just happens to be a girl”). Like all of us, his troubles are more complicated.
He sees ghosts.