Review: Dr. Smith & The Fantastic Castle (B)

drsmithLooking for the next great LDS filmmaker?  (Or, depending on your thoughts on the current crop, the first great one?)  There’s a chance he’s 5700 miles away from Salt Lake City.

Italian filmmaker Marco Lui turned some heads at the 2011 LDS Film Festival when his first movie The Book of Life inspired encore showings.  Acting again as writer/director/actor, Lui has returned with Dr. Smith & The Fantastic Castle (screened at the 2013 LDS Film Festival and available for direct download here).  Both films demonstrate a spark of creativity that shows Lui as an uncommon filmmaker of vision.

None of this necessarily means Dr.Smith is a great film, nor equal to The Book of Life — it’s neither.   Dr.Smith is short (barely peeking over an hour) which doesn’t give Lui the time to fully develop the themes and the relationships he surely intended.  There are many unexplained questions about the setting and the narrative.  There’s one major production issue (discussed below) that severely hampers the film experience.  Still, the ideas and vision are there even if the execution isn’t up to par.  Dr. Smith and the Fantastic Castle could be called a successful failure — an inessential film that nevertheless demonstrates the talent of a creative and visionary filmmaker.

“Dr.Smith” is an psychologist of limited experience.  (“I’ve only failed one of my previous patients.  <pause>  This is my second patient.”)  As the film opens, he visits a strange castle where a teenage girl named Virginia sits alone.  She refuses to acknowledge Dr.Smith’s existence at first, but a blend of humor and friendly charisma allows Dr. Smith to break the ice and form a connection.  The film is basically a two person stage play encapsulating their conversations from day to day (with a third, silent character on the periphery who figures into the narrative).  Since Virginia is wearing different clothes each time we see her, and the castle environment doesn’t look like any kind of ‘hospital’ we’re familiar with, we suspect there’s something else going on.

Like The Book of Life, Dr. Smith has a comedic and whimsical tone on the surface that hides a serious undercurrent underneath.  Lui (as an actor) is adept at physical comedy and witty self-depreciation.  Once Virginia and Dr. Smith start communicating, there’s some amusing banter (“You should go wash yourself.” “I already did, LAST month!”) and offhand comments that hint at hidden emotional turmoil.  (“Reality makes you suffer.  The world has so many contradictions.”)  There’s some creative scenes where Dr. Smith and Virginia use their imaginations to have a “Wild West” shootout, along with serious discussion about fantasy and reality.  We meet Virginia’s “imaginary friend” (shown in cute — albeit crudely drawn — cartoon form) with further discussion whether imaginary friends are a positive or negative crutch for emotionally wounded psyches.

The LDS connection is less overt than in Book of Life, but some of the conversations discuss prayer, the relationship between the spirit and the body, the parable of building on sand or on rock, and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to find empathy.  (Seeing Lui’s pure filter on LDS theology is refreshing compared to some local films that have more obvious Mormon Corridor cultural influences.)

Lui — basically a one-man production company unto himself — does the best he can to bring his vision to life with assorted camera tricks and special effects.  Stretching just over an hour (and with some repetitive elements even then) doesn’t allow the connection between Dr.Smith and Virginia (nor the mysterious third character) to resonate as much as it could.  It’s obvious there’s more going on than shown at face value, but the final “reveal” is awkward and doesn’t explain the strange castle setting nor why the characters were there in the first place.  Still, the final scene is beautifully shot, even though it’s an open question whether it is meant to be happy or sublimely sad (an interesting debate that I suspect the film won’t find nearly enough of an audience to create).

My biggest complaint with Dr. Smith – almost deserving of a dock of a letter grade in itself — is Lui’s decision to have himself and Virginia dub the original Italian dialogue into English instead of just subtitling it.   Given the minimal resources Lui had to work with, it’s not a surprise that he didn’t have post-production access to native English speakers, but their barely passable, highly-accented English makes understanding the dialogue more difficult than it should be, especially when they have to hurry their English words to match up with their Italian-speaking mouths on screen.  In some scenes, I had to rewind the stream on my computer to figure out what they were saying (and obviously, theater patrons wouldn’t have this option).  It’s a double tragedy since not only will American viewers miss some of the funny and meaningful exchanges trying to decipher the accents, but Italian is such a lovely and lyrical language anyway, it would have been pleasant to listen to even without comprehension.  Seriously, just stick with subtitles next time.

The combination of these factors make Dr. Smith & The Fantastic Castle more of a interesting creative prototype rather than a significant stand-alone experience.  Still, you have to admire anyone who’s willing to put so much effort into their art, even with the assured realization that the eventual audience for an LDS film from Italy will be microscopic.  I don’t doubt that, given better production resources, Marco Lui has the potential for many great things.  Here’s hoping he finds some helpful supporters to make his next creative vision fully a reality.

Final Grade: B