The Embalmer

on July 18, 2003 by Jordan Reed
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Menace can take on many shapes and sizes, from "Jurassic Park's" reanimated T-rex to Jim Carrey's comically creepy misfit in the underrated "Cable Guy" to the evil-infested plastic doll Chucky in the "Child's Play" franchise. Matteo Garrone's unsettling new film "The Embalmer" features an unlikely threat in the form of Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux), a dwarfish taxidermist. When the gap-toothed, physically unappealing carcass-stuffer takes a shine to model-of-modern-man Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo) one day at the zoo and eventually takes him on as an assistant, their lives begin to intertwine in both healthy and unhealthy ways, including some juicy, if sometimes vague, sexual experimentation. But when Peppino is forced to share Valerio's attentions with Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti), three becomes a most definite crowd.

"The Embalmer" is fortified by Mahieux's thoroughly convincing performance as the slightly sympathetic but malevolent Peppino. The actor manages to simultaneously depict the character's formidable powers of psychological seduction, communicate the underlying dread that hangs over him like a cloud, and present the almost childlike reverence for and emotional attachment to his newfound Lothario.

But Peppino's attentions are perfectly coupled with Valerio's youth-induced suggestibility and doubt. As weird as Peppino is, and as much as his measured nudging and obsession should make the twentysomething Valerio cut the cord, Garrone refuses to tip the scale too heavily against him. Deborah, and the potentially stultifying domestic existence she represents, makes Peppino's swinging-bachelor lifestyle that much more inviting to the highly sexualized and overtly selfish Valerio, regardless of his awareness of the ominous, homoerotic relationship forged between the two men. Peppino realizes this, and it's a trump card he plays on many occasions.

It's a testament to the screenwriters that Valerio's confusion rings true. A life with Deborah doesn't seem all that wonderful, especially when compared to some of the hijinks Peppino comes up with. Perhaps because of that delicate balance being struck, Valerio's seemingly obvious choice becomes a tad murkier than you might think. Starring Ernesto Mahieux, Valerio Foglia Manzillo and Elisabetta Rocchetti. Directed by Matteo Garrone. Written by Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone and Massimo Gaudioso. Produced by Domenico Procacci. A First Run release. Drama. Italian-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 104 min.

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