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The Night of the Shooting Stars (March 7/04)

The Night of the Shooting Stars is proof positive that it takes more than good intentions to craft a compelling film. Directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani presumably set out to make a war movie in which the war aspect is secondary; the focus here is on a select group of characters, none of which are soldiers. And though it's certainly an intriguing premise, the film never becomes anything more than a mildly engaging time-waster - primarily because we're not given a single character to care about (and when you're basing an entire movie around the fates of a select group of people, that's certainly not a good thing).

The film opens in a small Italian village during the Second World War, where the residents are pondering an escape plan. Their homes have been mined by the Germans, so a select group decide to leave the town in search of supposed nearby American soldiers. Along for the journey is a little girl named Rosanna (Sabina Vannucchi), who also acts as the film's narrator some twenty years later.

The Night of the Shooting Stars is undeniably well made, but the Taviani brothers often neglect things like story and character development in favor of establishing mood. And on that front, the film works; by the time the end credits roll, it's hard not to feel as though we've gone through this ordeal along with the characters. But that's just not enough to sustain our interest through a 105-minute movie, despite the obvious earnestness with which the brothers have imbued the story.

It certainly doesn't help that as the villagers first set off on their journey, they leave their dogs locked in a basement (where they'll presumably to starve to death). This doesn't exactly endear these folks to us, and it becomes very difficult to invest any emotions in their survival. The Tavianis attempt to turn these characters into more than just stereotypes (ie the wise old man, etc) by including a series of vignettes designed to allow us to get to know these people better, but it doesn't really work. The dialogue is melodramatic and the performances are amateurish, both of which are compounded by the fantastical elements in the story (the movie is a flashback, as the adult Rosanna tells this tell to her child - thus the presence of imaginative flourishes).

There is exactly one compelling sequence in the film. It comes at around the midway point, and features Rosanna running into a pair of American soldiers. A wordless exchange involving funny faces being traded back and forth ensues, and perfectly captures the sort of childlike innocence with which Rosanna views the whole situation. Sadly, there's nothing in the rest of The Night of the Shooting Stars that even remotely approaches the effective simplicity of that sequence; more often than not, we're left confused with what's actually going on (ie when Italian soldiers kill one of the villagers for no apparent reason).

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