For a sprawling magical-realist comedy full of sex, mistaken identity, extreme coincidence, life-changing revelations, screwball relationships, death, and more sex, the Italian feature Agata And The Storm operates on a strangely even keel. The latest from Italian award-winner Silvio Soldini (Bread & Tulips) reads like an early Pedro Almodóvar film with the energy level cranked way down, or at least pushed deep into hiding inside its intense characters. Over the course of two hours, those buried passions only occasionally emerge, but by keeping his characters muted most of the time, Soldini ensures that their occasional emotional earthquakes are riveting.
Whether they show it or not, they've got plenty to be excited about. On her deathbed, Giuseppe Battiston's elderly mother reveals that she had a second son, whom she sold to a wealthy family. Battiston dutifully contacts that son, uptight, unhappy architect Emilio Solfrizzi, who initially assumes he's being conned, but eventually seems eager to accept that he was adopted and embrace his new family. It seems to give him an excuse to escape his troubled son and his temperamental wife Marina Massironi, a psychiatrist whose bizarre talk show features guests dressed in Arabian Nights-style costumes, lounging on a pillow-strewn floor. Still, Solfrizzi retains some contact with his adoptive sister Agata (Bread & Tulips star Licia Maglietta), a passionate but repressed middle-aged bookstore owner who's being pursued by an ardent younger bibliophile. No matter who she's dealing with, Maglietta is almost always ready with a warm smile, but it looks painted on, a decoration as well as a piece of armor. She keeps her true feelings hidden, though they're so powerful that when she gets emotional, electrical devices around her malfunction, light bulbs pop, and cars crash.
The flashy gimmick gives Soldini some room to be subtler with the rest of his story; he doesn't spell out the theme of escaping repression, but it emerges repeatedly, as Solfrizzi and Maglietta learn how to accept their desires and be happy, in part from following Battiston's appetite-driven example. It's unfortunate that Solfrizzi's salvation involves jettisoning Massironi; Soldini devalues her feelings, possibly since she's the only character who seems to both understand and express them. It's also unfortunate when Soldini wanders away from his theme and into increasingly irrelevant and distracting subplots. But Maglietta's story, like her beautifully played character, is charming and gratifying. Agata And The Storm is too complicated to feel effortless, but the effort pays off, as Soldini deliberately underplays his comedy, making the funny moments funnier and the serious moments believable. Like its characters, the film keeps a generally quiet surface, which makes every outburst seem world-shattering.