Film Scouts Diaries

1997 Palm Beach Film Festival Diaries
Day 5: Bella Figura: April in Palm Beach

by Liza Bear

Day Five, Monday April 14

"Oh, New York," says the silver-haired limousine driver on the return trip to the airport. "Then it won't be so hard for you to readjust. Not like someone from Ohio or Delaware, who doesn't know on which side of the knife you put the fork or which wine glass is for white and which one for red."

Well, Palm Beach, whose 10-day film festival is in its second year, is certainly Emily Post country. Through sheets of driving rain that mock Sunshine State license plates, I glimpse the fairy-tale Arabesque turrets of the legendary Mar Largo chateau, designed by architect Joseph Urban for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. Marjorie, of course, is absolutely no relation to Emily, the doyenne of etiquette.

Forget leftist leanings or esthetics: according to my driver, pink is the architectural color of choice because it best resists saltwater erosion. Mar Largo, now a very private club and 18-acre estate bought at auction by Donald Trump, is the color of faded roses. So is the Palm Beach Hilton, the film festival's family-style headquarters smack on the ocean, which for four days has been churning 6 foot waves. And the grand Boca Raton Club and Resort, another example of Mediterranean revival architecture a 40-minute drive away.

At the glitzy $1000-a-plate black tie gala dinner held there on Saturday night, globetrotting filmmakers mingled with the sequins and gold lame of the society set against a backdrop of palm tree silhouettes and Moorish arches illuminated in amethyst and emerald.

A press conference for local press included the inevitable BBC tv crew from Yorkshire doing a news documentary on Palm Beach with the help of demi-monde, expatriate singer-actress Celia Lipton Farris. It whet everyone's appetite for the shrimp, filet mignon and artfully decorated dessert.

Awards went to Robert Wise, the Hollywood director whose career began as the editor of "Citizen Kane," and to Roger Moore of James Bond fame, who over the years still manages not to take himself too seriously. He and presenter/friend actor Michael Caine kept the ceremony on the light side. In clips shown from his Bond films, Moore's unruffled poise after the most harrowing exploits (performed, of course, by stunt doubles), fittingly epitomizes the Palm Beach tone.

Minding your p's and q's is de rigueur in this long narrow island, a coastal barrier reef 4 feet above sea level sprinkled with often vacant palatial homes. Palatial or not, this is still an evacuation zone. With a whole other meaning, code is also the ethos of Italian-Americans in the North End, the Boston version of New York's Little Italy. and the setting for "The Handsome Thing." The first feature by the Scioto brothers had its world premiere in Palm Beach two days ago. Festival director Mark Diamond, who picked the well-rounded slate of mostly foreign films, happens to be from Boston.

As a portrait of a neighborhood in flux, "The Handsome Thing", like another festival film, Cedric Klapisch's "When The Cat's Away," (opening in June) reflects a precarious urban reality. It's thankfully a far cry from being a low-budget mobster film, though Frank Vincent has a key role as Dom Di Bella. Dom behaves like a don, watching over the neighbors and acting as arbitrator in squabbles. Smart move, since Vincent is instantly recognizable as a character actor from "Godfather" and "GoodFellas". And whereas women take a back seat in crime family sagas, here Danielle (Lina Sivio), a wild-haired 19-year-old Italian and the Dom's goddaughter, becomes the centerpiece in a love triangle with two recent arrivals in North End. Mark Hartmann plays Mac, a young investment banker who first becomes obsessed with Danielle; his quieter Italian room-mate Freddie (Matt del Negro) is busy trying to document the neighborhood before it turns condo. Sound familiar? The irony is, he's part of the problem. When Mac becomes insanely jealous, it's Freddie to whom Danielle turns for sympathy. Predictable maybe, but for the most part the parallel story elements are well-meshed, the actors sympathetic and the performances convincing. Which is already a lot for a first film.

Director Frank Scioto, 33, a Harvard government major and football player, who grew up in a Boston suburb and has lived in the North End for ten years, says he felt the tension in the neighborhood early on. His older brother Joe wrote the screenplay.

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