‘Five Star Life’: A pleasant surprise

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For 21st Century Media

The protagonist of “A Five Star Life” is Irene Lorenzi (Margherita Buy), a still attractive, fortyish, Italian woman. She works as an inspector for the Leading Hotels in the World. She harbors exacting standards and a no-nonsense attitude. These qualities make her ideally suited for the job.
The term, the Leading Hotels in the World, may sound like a vague superlative to describe top-tier temporary lodgings. Actually, it is the name of a trade organization, started in 1928, which includes 430 of the world’s leading independent properties throughout 80 countries. In contrast to the cookie-cutter sameness of corporate hotel chains, each of these venues is unique and reflective of their home county. Such variegated entities as Medieval castles and safari tent villages are among the members.
To maintain their vaunted standards, the organization regularly dispatches inspectors, who pose as guests, to their member hotels. These so-called mystery guests conduct exhaustive research and fill out detailed reports.

Irene (Margherita Buy) is shown in a scene from "A Five Star Life." Courtesy of Music Box Films

Irene (Margherita Buy) is shown in a scene from “A Five Star Life.” Courtesy of Music Box Films

Wouldn’t staying at five-star hotels for a living be an ideal job and make for a perfect modus vivendi? That’s what the title might seem to suggest. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes evident that the title has a certain ironic edge. In Italy, the film was released under the title, “Viaggio Solo” which translates as “I Travel Alone.” This captures the quality of inherent loneliness that pervades the life of the film’s protagonist. Irene spends most of her life staying in opulent hotels. However, when she returns home to Rome, we see that her primary domicile is a spare, barely furnished apartment. Is this not a metaphor of the stark emotional emptiness of her life?
We incrementally meet the significant people in Irene’s life. She is rushing to an orchestra concerts with two young children (Carola Signore and Diletta Gradia) in tow. Are these her children as we might assume? She reaches the destination late and is barred admission to the show. Later, she returns to the venue, where she joins two other adults, Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi) and Tommaso (Gianmarco Tognazzi). The somewhat scatter-brained Silvia has once again parked her car in a cross walk and it has been once again towed away. Tomasso straddles his motorcycle with seeming detachment. How are these people connected? This carefully-constructed vignette is a manifestation of the consummate skill of director/co-screenwriter, Maria Sole Tognazzi. It turns out that Silvia and Tomasso are the parents of the two young children. Irene is Silvia’s sister and the aunt of the two girls. She has only a rather superficial relationship with her nieces.
Later, we watch Irene interacting with Andrea (Stefano Accorsi). He is a purveyor of high quality foodstuffs to restaurants and other outlets. Irene and Andrea are a similar age and seem aesthetically well matched. They look like they could certainly be a couple. However, there is a conspicuous absence of any display of physical affection between the two. Moreover, their contentious badinage suggests that they have no emotional affinity. Are the two as detached as they seem … or is it another example of misdirection by the filmmaker? We are well into the film before we grasp the parameters of the relationship between Irene and Andrea. These only become evident belatedly, when Andrea accidentally impregnates one of his customers, Fabiana (Alessia Barela)
Though polished and visually appealing, Irene has settled into middle age without ever having been married or having children. Moreover, she has no significant other in her life. Early in the film, it is revealed that two of Irene’s distaff colleagues have resigned to pursue marital bliss and children. Irene has become the last female available to conduct surprise visits. This subtle and seemingly parenthetical detail is an early manifestation of the filmmaker’s subtle touch.
Late in the film, Irene is visiting luxury hotel in Berlin. In their sauna, she serendipitously meets Kate Sherman (Lesley Manville), an alluring older woman, who is an author. Provocatively titivated in leather wear, she will be appearing on a local television show to discuss her heterodox views on sexuality, gender issues, pornography, and intimacy in the post-modernist era. Kate’s incisive views have a profound impact on Irene. When a certain unexpected event takes place off-screen, Irene experiences an epiphany.
Maria Sole Tognazzi has done a superb job in crafting the screenplay and helming the film. Her languid pacing and use of a shifting perspective are executed with impressive panache. It is doubtful that a male filmmaker could have mounted such a film.
Tognazzi elicits fine performances from her entire cast. Margherita Buy’s lead performance in the film garnered a fourth David di Donatello Award for Best Actress for the acclaimed thespian. The supporting cast is also excellent. Particularly noteworthy is the performance of Lesley Manville, a veteran of Mike Leigh’s films. She infuses the film with a certain piquant quality, which is crucial to the film’s denouement.
The cinematography by Arnaldo Catiani and editing by Walter Fasone provide a visually arresting portrayal of life in luxury hotels. This is complemented by an evocative score by Gabriele Roberto.
Traditionally, late August is a dumping ground for films in which studios lack confidence. When you see a film, particularly one with a major star in it, being released this time of year, consider it a big red flag. In all likelihood, the film is a bomb. “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” with Eddie Murphy in the lead, epitomizes this phenomenon.
Once in a rare while, an unheralded albeit appealing independent or foreign film pops up in the second half of August. “A Five Star Life” is such a pleasant surprise.

“A Five Star Life”
***1/2 No MPAA rating 85 minutes (In Italian with English subtitles)
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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