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Venice 2010. Ascanio Celestini's "The Black Sheep"

"That the infirm of mind make for troublesome film subjects is demonstrated once again in Ascanio Celestini's striking but over self-conscious feature debut, The Black Sheep, one of three Italian films in this year's Venice competition." Lee Marshall for Screen: "Told by an unreliable asylum-inmate narrator who is too unreliable from the start to really engage our sympathies, this blackly comic denunciation of the casual way in which people can be committed to mental institutions has the audience caught in a cleft stick between compassion for the quirky social outcasts the film depicts and depression at the sheer sadness of it all."

"Most of Ascanio Celestini's theater productions consist of him sitting in a chair, captivating audiences with monologues that combine great wit, historical commentary and genuine despair over a range of social injustices," writes Natasha Senjanovic in the Hollywood Reporter. "So it's no surprise that The Black Sheep, the feature debut from the prolific raconteur-writer-actor, also captivates, though here for the precision and artistry with which he brings his characters to life.... He is not the visual artist that Julian Schnabel is, but, like the latter in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, he lifts profound tragedy from darkness with warmth, humor and even hope without stooping to cheap sentimentality or caricature."

"[T]he film centers on the character of Nicola, a well-meaning patient unjustly institutionalized as a child and mentally stalled as a result," explains Guy Lodge at In Contention. "Flitting loosely between the past and the present, the film works best in the wry severity of the childhood sequences; present-day action, however, is hindered by the impulse to make the mentally disabled more cuddly than conflicted. A rather lightweight selection for the festival's principal strand, but I suspect there will less agreeable ones to come."

At Cineuropa, Gabriele Barcaro finds the images "unusually powerful for a debut film (or almost debut, after his documentary Sacred Words), especially in the always terse portrayal of Nicola's family microcosm, and in a few bursts of real poetry (the encounter with the 'Martian' prostitute)."

Update, 9/4: Boyd van Hoeij in Variety: "Probably as a result of the original source material, the film, written by the helmer and vets Ugo Chiti (Gomorrah) and Wilma Labate (Another World Is Possible), has a v.o. that recounts much of what is seen onscreen, often to the point of even repeating what the characters are saying, or adding 'he said' or 'she said' at the end of sentences spoken by actors. The narration is also filled with onomatopoeias, short sung phrases and various motifs that pop up again and again ad nauseam. All these storytelling tricks no doubt work fine in a theater setting but are grating in the context of what otherwise plays as a straightforward — though never particularly well-developed — narrative film."

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