A ghost comedy exploring fiction and reality, Ferzan Ozpetek’s A Magnificent Haunting sees worlds collide as past meets present and the living meet the dead.
The Others by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After the will-he-won’t-he, coming-out quirk of Loose Cannons, Ferzan Ozpetek returns with another capricious comedy, this time a ghostly farce as sharp as an Italian suit. Less political perhaps, without the poignant irreconcilability between Mine Vaganti‘s bourgeois family and its gay son, but more philosophical with its interplay between fantasy and reality. A Magnificent Haunting opens in a theatre, an actor making up with eyeliner as the audience fills the stalls and the screen flickers, splutters and desprockets like a well-worn projection from the silent movie era. And with its final scene, with a telescopic reveal of stage upon stage, Magnifica Presenza is a play on fiction and reality – a zoetrope of shifting realities that is a magnificent presence alternately for both the living and the dead.
Pietro (Elio Germano) has moved to Rome to make his fortune as an actor. But for now he works by night making croissants for the city’s bakeries and bars, sharing a tiny apartment (and a bed) with his cousin Maria (Paola Minaccioni). But his luck is turning, with an enormous apartment in Monteverde Vecchio at a knock-down price. The only trouble is it’s already inhabited – by a troupe of thespian spooks. By stages fearful, combatant and forgiving, Pietro learns to live with his friendly ghosts, sharing not only his home but also his prized sticker collection. And while they teach him the rudiments of Forties acting, Pietro embarks on a mission to investigate the truth behind their mysterious incarceration on the Via Cavalcanti.
As the curtain closes on A Magnificent Haunting, Ferzan Ozpetek would have us believe in ghosts, and that they do inhabit the cracked world of Pietro Ponte. It’s true, no-one else can see them. And as he, alone in the audience, watches them return to their spiritual home – the theatre – to perform their final play, we’re forced to question whether they really do exist only in his head. The curtains are even drawn to reveal the same apartment he’s inhabited from the beginning of the film, painstakingly reaffixing its peeling wallpaper and broken bathroom tiles. And yet, the reason for their presence, as an externalised figment of his psyche, is never clear. They’re forgiving – for them he doesn’t exist and he’s free to explore his homosexuality with tacit ambivalence from the silent witnesses of history. As well as character building – they teach him the fundamentals of his craft as well as self-confidence and ambition. But Pietro Ponte neither learns nor grows, abandoning his story and drawn into theirs instead.
Through the looking glass lies a ghost story – of the Appollonio theatre troupe, with actors, singer, writer and director, working as spies in 1943 and unable to find their final resting place, coming to their untimely death in hiding at the hands of a faulty heater. Unravelling this ghost story becomes A Magnificent Haunting‘s primary focus, and like The Arabian Nights it’s only released in stages as Pietro relieves them from their helpless suspension in anxiety, tracking down the missing prima donna Livia Morosini who fled to Buenos Aires that same night. Caught up in their tragic fate, with their all too apposite code words of ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’, Pietro nevertheless reveals in Magnifica Presenza the power of fiction – their final performance casting wondrous shadows on his enchanted, surprised, delighted, sad face. And the feeling’s mutual – for he too is a magnificent presence for them, reuniting them with both their history and themselves.
It’s a one-sided mirror though, and a curtain is drawn over the precarious truth behind this mutual satisfaction – a fictional layering which blurs the varyingly successful interplay between fiction and reality. And while there are some brilliant scenes, such as the phantoms discovering Rome by tram and the soothsaying Abbess and her coven of millinery-making transvestites, Pietro’s story never comes to fruition, his career as a star of the cinema and his could-be romance with Paolo both reluctant to get off the ground. A Magnificent Haunting is purposefully theatrical, as its farce of opening doors and its melodious score are dramatically interrupted by an otherworldly creak. For this is a tall tale with a difference – a homage to the exquisite pleasure of performance and the ghost-releasing effects of a telling truth. Like the world it inhabits, Ozpetek’s film is dazzling if not altogether deep. But its lies can be very convincing.
A Magnificent Haunting is released on 25th October 2013 in the UK