The glory days of Cinecitta are evoked in Finally Dawn (Finalmente l’Alba), a sprawling story of uncertain tone – sometimes thrilled, sometimes appalled and sometimes as generally bewildered as nervous ingenue Mimosa (Rebecca Antonaci), an ordinary young woman of Rome who finds herself leading the way through this warren of a Wonderland. Cinecitta has recently revived its fortunes after a long slump, with a slow build of refurbishment and expansion, but director Saverio Costanzo leans heavily into nostalgia for times past, setting his story in the ‘50s when there were still legions of centurions marching around the studio lot and live animals awaiting their close-ups. A lion features here, roaring at passers-by. It may well be the film’s most sympathetic character.
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Mimosa is not the least bit leonine. She is only at Cinecitta because her sister Iris (Sofia Panizzi) was approached at the local cinema by someone from the studio who said he was scouting for extras and that she should come next day and do a quick audition. Riccardo (Andrea Ottavi) turns out to be the first of many unreliable men who try to throw their negligible weight around in Finally Dawn, which is probably true enough to life; their mother insists that if one goes, they all go. They are soon separated, however; Iris gets a day’s work as an Egyptian extra in a sword-and-sandals epic, while Mimosa is rejected because she won’t – can’t – take off her blouse so the directors can get a look at her.
It is the first of a ledger of MeToo moments, conscientiously recorded but often feeling peripheral to business – as they do in life – that hint at a dark undercurrent to the wonders of the movie world. Another shadow looms: a news story about a young woman found dead on the beach near a mansion outside Rome where movie stars and their acolytes gather for fascinatingly decadent parties. Costanzo here is drawing directly from life; Wilma Montesi was a hopeful starlet whose murder in 1953 has never been solved. Mimosa will spend a good deal of time of time stumbling through shadows, but her very unworldliness makes her seem untouchable; there is a sense that she is always trembling on the brink of another adventure. Wilma’s death, often mentioned, is solid evidence that like so much else in the movie world, this is mere illusion.
Mimosa does find her way into the movies. Trying to return to where she thinks her mother is, she is scooped up in the corridor by the epic’s star Josephine Esperanto (Lily James) who decides she wants this owlish young woman in her eyeline as she delivers her most important speech. Esperanto is playing Egypt’s only female pharaoh, a scheming harpy whose character has seemingly been written to match Esperanto’s real-life malevolence. Her main squeeze in the film is an honorable warrior played by an actor called Sean Lockwood (Joe Keery, amiably caddish) whom Mimosa adores. She adores them both. Adores them all. She can’t believe it when she finds herself going to dinner with them. Mother will worry, but there is no phone at home and besides, Mimosa doesn’t know exactly where she is.
All roads lead to the party mansion, of course, which is the flipside of Cinecitta’s artificial luxury: a kind of ‘50s version of bunga bunga, with cocaine on tap and raddled older men taking their pick of the industry’s freshmen. Mimosa still has little idea where she is: like the studio, the house is labyrinthine, seeming to swallow people whole – but the rooms where the crowds have the excitement of stages where everyone is performing. Sean teaches her to jitterbug. Josephine sings to the assembled glitterati – Lily James turns up the Gilda-style glamour to 11 here, delivering a show-stopper as she swishes her furs around her shoulders – and entertains herself by passing off her new pet ingenue as a fascinating Swedish poet called Sandy.
It is a game that turns nasty when Josephine becomes irritated by the jitterbugging and has her revenge by demanding that “Sandy” deliver one of her poems to the assembled guests. Against all odds, Mimosa triumphs with a performance nobody was expecting – Costanzo stretches credibility to the limit here, but manages at least to suggest that there is more to Mimosa than milky acquiescence. Only the day before, during a discussion of her forthcoming quasi-arranged marriage to the reliable but unappetizing Angelo, that with her pliant nature she could get on with anyone. When she finally makes it home from the party – when it is finally dawn – there is a strong sense that maybe she won’t be so pliant in future.
One can only hope. Two hours is a long time to spend with someone who understands little of what is said to her, given that Josephine and Sean only speak English, so can rarely say much in reply. Costanzo relies on her large, luminous and often brimming eyes to tell her story, except when she is politely asking Rufus (Willem Dafoe), an American art dealer and indulgent friend of the viperish Josephine, to please take her home. He always says yes, but there are a great many false dawns before she heads that way, skipping down the Spanish Steps. In the early light of day, they look less like stairs than a sculpture. That’s the power of the movies for you, I guess. There is a sense that Costanzo is more enamored of that mythical power than even he would like to admit.
Title: Finally Dawn (Finalmente l’Alba)
Festival: Venice Film Festival
Director: Saverio Costanzo
Screenwriters: Saverio Costanzo
Cast: Lily James, Rebecca Antonaci, Joe Keery, Rachel Sennott, Alba Rohrwacher, Willem Dafoe
Running time: 2 hr 20 min
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