Love and taxidermy intersect in ‘The Embalmer’

“The Embalmer," directed by Matteo Garrone, screens at the Quad Cinema Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. as part of the “The Great Garrone” retrospective.
“The Embalmer,” directed by Matteo Garrone, screens at the Quad Cinema Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. as part of the “The Great Garrone” retrospective.

The Italian film “The Embalmer” is both a hypnotic character study and a sly psychological thriller. It is also one of the more complex and unusual love stories to unspool in theaters.

The title character, Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux), is a 50-year-old dwarf who befriends the gorgeous Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo) at the zoo one afternoon. Secretly in love with this tall young man, Peppino begins his slow, steady seduction of Valerio by offering him a better paying job doing taxidermy work. Valerio graciously accepts, and he soon asks to move in with Peppino to escape tensions at home. Peppino, is, of course, pleased to share his house — and hopefully more — with this hunk.

Before long, this odd couple are spending every day and night together, and Peppino starts initiating some casual physical contact with Valerio. With the touch of an arm here, and a brief caress there, Peppino thinly masks his much stronger desire for his companion. This point is driven home when the two men end up in bed together (along with a pair of ladies) and Peppino is resting his head on Valerio’s smooth, bare chest. 

Valerio, however, becomes sexually involved with Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti), a lost young woman he meets one afternoon. Deborah’s presence drives a wedge between the two male friends, and a fierce power struggle for Valerio’s affection begins. Needless to say, the story does not end happily.

“The Embalmer” uses its mismatched romantic triangle to comment on the pain of jealousy and unrequited love. Peppino is a misfit — he wears loud clothes and has ties to the mafia — but the fact that his dream of being with someone like Valerio is realized even briefly makes him fight harder to prolong it. Although Deborah catches on quickly to Peppino’s game, she finds it difficult to maintain complete control over her man. In perhaps the film’s creepiest scene, Peppino lures Valerio away from Deborah, and gets him drunk so that he can undress him.

Either Valerio is either incredibly naïve, or he is happy to be a pawn for those who love him. It is to the credit of director and co-writer Matteo Garrone that the film remains largely ambiguous (and even slightly frustrating) on this critical issue. Why Peppino has such command over Valerio is one of the film’s more engaging mysteries.

“The Embalmer,” which is beautifully shot in a realist style, is a haunting film. The idea of preserving something that is loved — be it an animal or a relationship — is the overriding theme, and Garrone keeps the tension mounting right up to the film’s shocking finale. As the lovelorn characters get more and more manipulative — each trying to outdo the other for Valerio’s love — the sense of doom becomes stronger. 

Unfortunately, the ending, which is fair, and makes perfect sense, is also a little unsatisfying. It should be noted, however, that it does not involve any human taxidermy.

The performances in the film by actors unknown on these shores are top-notch. In the central role, Ernesto Mahieux creates a man who is so unhappy with his life that he will risk anything to improve it. Mahieux imbues Peppino with a smarminess that is absolutely mesmerizing. As the object of his desire, the incredibly good-looking Valerio Foglia Manzillo proves himself to be an accomplished performer as well. Manzillo uses clever body language to give his character depth, and scenes of the two men walking together provide an amusing visual contrast. In support, Elisabetta Rocchetti projects intelligence and craftiness that serves her unlikable character well. 

“The Embalmer” is a stylish and strange film. Although it falls just shy of being unforgettable, it is still quite impressive.

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“The Embalmer” | Directed by Matteo Garrone | At the Quad Cinema February 16 at 2:00 and 7:00 pm as part of the “The Great Garrone” retrospective, February 16-22.