The word virgin is spoken perhaps three dozen times within the first ten minutes of The Best Man.
In Emilia in 1899, virginity is a big, urgent deal. Not only must a bride-to-be, Francesca (Inés Sastre), be intact; even the teenage boy chosen to help put on her special stockings for the wedding has to be pure. However, when Francesca's bawdy, wild-haired, bug-eyed cousins are asked whether they are virginal enough to make up the nuptial bed, they merely roll their eyes.
Francesca is betrothed to Edgardo (Dario Cantarelli), a solid, honourable, businessman type. There is nothing loathsome about Edgardo; he is simply not Francesca's choice. Chaffing at the unromantic ethics of an arranged marriage, Francesca looks across during her moment of truth at the altar and spies the older, darker, suaver Angelo (Diego Abatantuono) – and it is he that, in her own mind and heart, she secretly marries.
Naturally, this makes the prospect of marital consummation a little tricky for Francesca. As she flees crying from her wedding night bed, every member of this large, gathered family begins racing about, speculating and counselling. Even before Angelo is spotted pashing on with the bride, he becomes the centre of this familial storm: his previous lovers are now pining widows, ever ready to pounce.
The Best Man is a familiar but pleasing romantic fantasy. Writer-director Pupi Avati (Bix ) is a veteran of Italian cinema. His portrait of the dated social manners of a large group of people is fluent and affectionate rather than satirical – often recalling Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939), but without the bite.
Nostalgia prevails for Avati – particularly in a charming scene where Angelo puts on a lantern slide show for the assembled, rapt throng. This tone puts his film closer to the misty-eyed comforts of Cinema Paradiso (1988) than the tougher, more truly elegiac drama of Visconti's The Leopard (1963). The Best Man is militantly light, but satisfyingly so.
Abatantuono, a seasoned performer who will be new to most non-Italian viewers, exudes an easy-going charm, ruffled by just a touch of moral anxiety and shyness. Sastre (a Spanish actor whose role here is entirely dubbed) projects much as she did in Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds (1995) – an exquisite creature with a permanently sad and vacant expression.
MORE Avati: A Heart Elsewhere
© Adrian Martin October 1998