Between Strangers
directed by Edoardo Ponti
(First Look, 2002)

If you're Edoardo Ponti, lucky guy, you don't have to rely on film school classmates to cast a lead in one of your first feature films. Just call home and ask Mom. How could Sophia Loren turn you down?

Fortunately, she said yes to screenwriter/director Edoardo, because she's one of the strengths in Between Strangers.

The cast is, actually, the only strength of Between Strangers. Each segment of the three plot lines is too weak to carry a film on its own, and the trio together, once you get past figuring out what holds them all together, isn't quite enough, either.

Stick with Loren and her castmates, though, and it's a lesson in how to make something out of a one-note script. For Loren, it's a chance to portray resignation and quelched dreams -- and she can do it effortlessly through her eyes alone.

For Mira Sorvino, portraying a gifted photographer who's the daughter of a legendary photographer, it's the chance to desperately search for herself buried under the wishes of her father and her own desire to make him happy.

And for Deborah Kara Unger, it's the chance to live in the skin of someone willing to forsake her marriage and her daughter for a chance at revenge. Add in Gerard Depardieu, Pete Postlethwaite, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Malcolm Macdowell, and it's a real powerhouse lineup.

What they're working with, though, is essentially a series of one-dimensional characters. Not once is the tension and sadness relieved for Unger as Catherine, the professional cellist whose hatred for her abusive father has no bounds. Sorvino, as Natalia, vascillates between guilt for not feeling worthy and guilt for her job as a "professional recorder."

And oppression surrounds Loren as Olivia, the long-suffering wife of bitter John, a former athlete who now is restricted to his wheelchair. It lifts only when she can pursue art -- an ambition John scorns with a mixture of anger and fear. Cheery, it's not.

Between Strangers is essentially another rumination on how similar our lives can be to those of complete strangers, how often our paths almost cross. The women go about their daily lives -- Catherine, bent on avenging her mother's death; Natalia, shaken after her return from the war zone and desperate to find out what happened to the toddler whose photo she captured; Olivia, to come to grips with a secret she's kept from John for decades.

All three have struggles in common. Each has to deal, in her own way, with the long-ago actions of her father. And each must struggle to find balance in her relationship with a girl or woman of the next generation.

Ponti takes it a step further, tying that struggle of each woman to the sudden appearances of the same giggling little girl with long, dark hair, who appears to each of them on the street. It all moves rather inexorably toward the moment when each woman can cast off a key illusion she's held about herself, when she can stop stumbling around in futility and see where she must head next.

But the pace, whether it's Olivia preparing John's breakfast or Catherine tailing her father, never really gives any of these women a chance to become more fully rounded.

Still, there's Sophia Loren, still stunning and a much better actress than all those late-night movies like Houseboat would indicate -- and she did win an Academy Award in 1962 for La Ciociara, and was nominated again in 1965, after all. Olivia may seem a pushover, but there's no mistaking her core of steel -- and it's hard to tell where Olivia's strength ends and Loren's begins.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 24 October 2004

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