Under the Skin

An Italian hunk tempts a dangerous dwarf taxidermist who happens also to be The Embalmer

Currently available in finer comic-book and video-game stores nationwide is a curious series of toys, from Spawn comic-book creator Todd McFarlane, called "Twisted Land of Oz." In McFarlane's plastic renditions, the Wizard has become a dirty old voyeur, the not-so-Cowardly Lion is impaled on a spear with his intestines hanging out, the contents of Toto's stomach are removable, and Dorothy -- now 18 and legal -- is tied up in bondage gear, being branded by hideous midgets in leather straps who are riding each other in an almost doggy-style position. Clearly there's some kind of market for this stuff, and that's good news for the makers of the new Italian film The Embalmer. If you find that you're part of this newly identified demographic with an affinity for gay little folk, disemboweled animals, sexy babes, and creepy voyeurs, consider your movie prayers answered. It should go without saying that if you're particularly phobic with regard to any of these elements, there are undoubtedly kinder, gentler movies playing elsewhere.

Frankly, though, if you don't go see The Embalmer, you may have to forfeit your right to complain that all movies these days are the same. Where else can you experience the story of a dwarf taxidermist with mob ties and an unfortunate tendency to fall in love with sexy guys he can't have?

OK, so the more astute among you are probably wondering why a movie whose title suggests the replacement of body fluids with formaldehyde actually centers on someone who removes the insides of dead animals and replaces them with wood and wires. It's sort of a surprise, but there is at least one embalming during the course of the film. Best to leave it at that for now.

The Love Boat: Deborah (Elisabeth 
Rocchetti) falls for Valerio (Valerio Foglia 
Manzillo), who's also the object of Peppino's 
(Ernesto Mahieux) affection.
The Love Boat: Deborah (Elisabeth Rocchetti) falls for Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo), who's also the object of Peppino's (Ernesto Mahieux) affection.

Diminutive dealer in death Peppino, played by little-known little-man actor Ernesto Mahieux, first encounters the especially tall and good-looking Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo, apparently a model making his movie debut) at the zoo, while regaling Valerio's nephew with detailed descriptions of scavenger birds and the dead things they ingest. It isn't recommended to try such pickup lines at home, but somehow they catch Valerio's interest without creeping him out in any way, and before long he has quit his dead-end waiter job to work as Peppino's apprentice.

It's clear fairly soon that Peppino's interest in Valerio is more than just professional; otherwise, why choose an unskilled apprentice out of the blue? It isn't certain if Valerio is quite aware what the deal is at first, though at one point he does casually walk into the bathroom when Peppino's in the tub. Peppino, who is well funded by wealthy Mafia friends, likes to double-date with Valerio and two women, with all four ending up in the same bed, thereby giving the twisted taxidermist a chance to cop a feel on his protégé while maintaining plausible deniability about his orientation.

When the two go off on a mysterious road trip, though, things change. Their van breaks down, and Valerio encounters the beautiful Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti). Since she's a gorgeous Euro-babe happy to get naked on camera, and he has the looks of a freakin' model, well, there isn't really much room left romantically for a middle-aged dwarf who looks like a cross between a shrunken Roberto Benigni and Troma Films CEO Lloyd Kaufman. Still, Valerio is living with Peppino, having been kicked out of his brother's house for keeping late hours, and Deborah in due course gets into a squabble that results in her residence being retracted, so she shacks up with Valerio at Peppino's pad without the latter's approval. Now, if you're thinking to yourself that pissing off a dead-critter stylist with friends in organized crime is probably a bad idea, you're thinking a step or two ahead of Valerio and Deborah.

Stories of male bonding interrupted by some damned female are standard fare in Hollywood, but Italian director Matteo Garrone (Roman Summer) cannily leaves gaps in the narrative that pay off big time later. We're never entirely sure what's going on between Valerio and Peppino -- despite Valerio's initial denseness, and nightmares over possible blow jobs, it eventually seems as though something sexual did happen between the two men. Long after Peppino's intentions are clear, for instance, and Deborah has told him to stay away, Valerio blows off his bride-to-be to follow Peppino to a club for a double date with two manly-looking "women." Obviously there's more than just pity afoot.

The whole movie is shot absolutely beautifully by cinematographer Marco Onorato, with film that seems to have been through a bleach bypass process or one similar to it (think Three Kings or Traffic). In Onorato's hands, a pile of dead dogs can be magical, and the Italian countryside haunting. With visual poetry this strong, the story almost needn't matter, but Mahieux makes us care, and loathe, in equal measure. Foglia Manzillo can be a bit of a lightweight sometimes -- the mystery of his on-screen relationship with Mahieux may be due in part to the model's inability to convey complex emotions. Nonetheless, by movie's end, he pleasantly surprises, if indeed one could call anything about the film's climax "pleasant."

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