'Canon Inverse' Proves Critic's Maxim: The Book Is Better

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'Canon Inverse' Proves Critic's Maxim: The Book Is Better

At the beginning of "Canon Inverse" - internationally known as "Canone Inverso - Making Love" - close-up shots of an intricately carved violin are shown as the credits appear in Italian. The director is Italian (Ricky Tognazzi), but the film takes place in Prague and the dialogue is entirely in English. Apparently, this has caused confusion at more than a couple of theaters in Seoul that are wrongly marketing "Canon Inverse" as an Italian-language film with Korean subtitles.

Having clarified that, you would think this flick would be a real treat for movie buffs who are dying to see all those acclaimed imports from abroad, but who can't due to the lack of English subtitles. After all, not being able to see Roberto Benigni's Oscar award-winning "Life Is Beautiful" was a hard pill to swallow for many expats in 1999.

Unfortunately, though the opening scenes mirror those of the superbly done "The Red Violin" (1999), and you instinctively hope that there will be something equally magical or epic about "Canon Inverse," movie critic's maxim No. 1 rings true: Movies with similar themes come in pairs, and usually one of them is much worse than the other.

Just take a look at the engaging "Mission to Mars" vs. the tired "Red Planet," or Denzel Washington's score in "Remember the Titans" vs. Keanu Reeves's flop "The Replacements." Current bets are now on who will win the standoff at the box office between Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek, both to star in movies depicting the life of artist Frida Kahlo.

"Canon Inverse" begins with an elderly gentleman who has just secured a rare violin at an auction. As he is leaving the auction house, he is confronted by a younger female bidder who begs him not to take the violin, warning that the instrument will only bring him misery. Intrigued by the woman, named Costanza (Nia Roberts), he finds a place for them to talk and she discloses the events of her first encounter with the mysterious previous owner of the violin (Gabriel Byrne).

The story then shifts back in time, and after Byrne's character plays a vaguely familiar tune to her, Constanza tells her of the tragic story behind the violin. All that he tells her, she in turn relates to the old man in the present, rather like the stories within a story that Scheherazade would recite in "Arabian Nights."

The violin figures in the rivalry of two prodigies, Jeno Varga (Hans Matheson), a poor farmer's son, and David Blau (Lee Williams), an Austrian aristocrat's son. Both are driven to achieve success, for different reasons. Jeno seeks the love of a famous pianist (Melanie Thierry), while David wishes only to please his stern father. The slightly more talented Jeno is befriended by David at the rigorous Collegium Musicum, but their friendship abruptly comes to an end when they discover the connection between the violin and their past.

Both movies, "Canon Inverse" and "The Red Violin," have compelling themes: Artistic and physical passions are contrasted while set against defining events in history. And while both movies show that in the pursuit of beauty, ugliness often rears its head, what "Canon Inverse" painfully lacks is a convincing cast. Matheson is guilty of melodramatic over-acting while Thierry's performance will just put you to sleep. Byrne, as usual, is good in his role as the "older" David, but his performance is nothing more than a cameo appearance.

The plot is agonizingly slow for about the first half of the movie. Finally, when the rivalry between the Jeno and David begins, the story picks up pace. But it is a long wait and by this time you will be fidgeting in your seat and looking at your watch.

Many critics of Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful" argued that by combining comic and romantic overtones into his movie, the devastation of the Holocaust was downplayed. Even though Tognazzi's "Canon Inverse" will not generate this kind of criticism, his portrayal of the Holocaust does border on the fantastical. In the final scene, Jeno and his long-sought-after love Sophie are shown among other prisoners in a concentration camp and separated by a wire fence. Sophie is accompanied by a child she apparently gave birth to while in the concentration camp and Jeno is shown serenading them with a violin.

Adapted from the Italian novel by Paolo Maurensig, "Canon Inverse," like Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," is a prime example of a remarkable book that gets cut into incomprehensible pieces and then made into a feature-length film, giving credibility to maxim, No. 2: "The book is always better."

by Joseph Kim

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