At the risk of overstating the obvious, let’s re-emphasize the three most important ingredients of any film: writing, writing, and writing. That perennial baseline comes to mind while watching Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Burnt Orange Heresy, a British-Italian co-prod crime pic that gets down to the foul details with an extraordinary amount of style.
There’s something irresistible about the world of fine arts. It’s corrupt, ingrown, prone to deceit and thievery (not to mention vanity), and supports a product that’s arguably completely useless after we boil down human endeavor to its most elemental necessities. And yet, we find ourselves somehow unable to live without art. After we admit that artistic expression feeds our soul in ways that bread and water could never do, the door swings open. And standing in that doorway is a man named James Figueras.
Figueras (played by Claes Bang), an erstwhile critic who picks up spare change by lecturing tourists in Milan about the splendors of Italian art – and sniggering to himself about their sheepish ignorance – is bored the way only a natural predator can be when all the game begins to taste the same. But then he runs into Berenice Hollis. Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki), an American visiting Europe, has the quick intelligence and alert beauty that would make any man she’s with seem brilliant, just by being in a two-shot with her.
Figueras and Berenice cut an intriguing figure together, something on the order of inspired advertising yet more sophisticated, more complex, more troubled. Bang, a Danish actor in international dramas and the occasional horror pic (the TV Dracula), is tall, dark, and glib enough to make a serviceable James Bond. Australian-bred Debicki, a former ballerina, has enough cool blond sex appeal to equip a filmography of spy thrillers. If we were feeling generous we might compare her screen presence to Grace Kelly’s. The two foreigners in Italy tumble into a carnal partnership that mostly consists of testing and probing each other in conversation, as if searching for a weak spot.
It suddenly occurs to us we’re listening to the words of author Charles Willeford (Miami Blues, Cockfighter, Pick-Up, The Shark-Infested Custard), an expert constructor of noirish traps, and that Italian director Capotondi and screenwriter Scott B. Smith are tampering with characters ideally suited for the tawdry backwaters of the American Sunbelt. But the classic rich-folks-on-vacation milieu (classical music, swanky Euro settings) and our leading couple’s playful posing are truly enchanting. They, and we, are trespassing on expensive turf with questionable motives. Nothing fortunate can come of this.
Figueras is experiencing financial difficulties. Berenice harbors doubts about her modest Midwestern background. Figueras is fond of making up stories and stringing his listeners along for his own amusement. He’s the sort of guy who snoops around every living room he goes into, and idly flicks away his cigarette butts. Berenice, meanwhile, carries her misgivings everywhere she goes. We feel sorry for her and distrust him implicitly. When a chance invitation brings them to the luxurious Lake Como villa of art dealer Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), they discover the ideal joint project. In a rundown cottage on the grounds of Cassidy’s estate lives Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), an abstract painter notorious for his reclusiveness as well as his brilliance. Would Figueras and Berenice be interested in meeting Debney, ingratiating themselves, and then making off with a canvas from his legendary, extremely rare body of work?
Cassidy is a hustler. Debney turns out to be a frail ghost of a man who speaks in riddles like a holy fool. Figueras and Berenice behave more or less as expected, with the twist that as Debney and Berenice come to understand each other, Figueras is left out in the cold. Filmmaker Capotondi, who has dealt in crime and spy movies on the big screen and TV, spins a very watchable tale of corruption and its consequences from Willeford’s blueprint. The high-priced booshwah luster of the settings gets perked up by the author’s dialogue. The romance chills thoroughly and hard calculation is ready to move in and take its place. The Burnt Orange Heresy is a simple yet richly illustrated detour to the dark side. Handle with care.