Nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar in 1995, "The Star Maker" was Giuseppe Tornatore's follow-up to his 1990 film "Cinema Paradiso", and in many respects, both films are cut from the same cloth. They both feature the island of Sicily just after the end of World War II and revolve around the amorous enchantment of the movies that fill ordinary people with dreams and hope.
Joe Morelli (Sergio Castellitto) is a con artist who travels from town to town, calling himself a talent scout for Universalia Studios di Roma, preying on the fascination of the simple townsfolk he meets and offering them screen tests in the vain hope of being discovered-- for a fee of 1,500 lire. "Mother of God, what a face!" he says facetiously as he convinces all those around him of their potential in the movie business. Of course, the film stock in his stolen camera has expired long ago, and his victims will never hear from Rome. But they line up, and in a series of segments, they bear their souls to the camera: some cry for comrades who have fallen in battle, some try to vindicate themselves from the bad reputation that they are burdened with, some talk about the most mundane things, some philosophize, and some actually act... or at least try to. In one town, Joe comes across a beautiful young teenage girl, Beata (Tiziana Lodato), who scrubs floors and lets the local tax collector look at her body to make ends meet. She approaches Joe for a screen test, and what do you know, Joe has feelings for this girl. He waives his usual fee in sympathy for the girl, and sends her on her way. Of course, it is not the last time he sees her, since she stows away on his truck when he leaves town the next day. From here, they discover their love for each other (maybe it's just me, but I did find the love-making scenes between Beata and Joe a bit discomforting, with its shades of "Lolita")., but unfortunately this bliss does not last, as Joe's sins catch up with him.
Everybody confessed to you. They gave you their soul and perhaps they will never again. And you didn't understand a thing. They trusted you Morelli, and so did I. But all you wanted was money.
The first half is a light-hearted comedy with some engaging scenes of Joe scamming everyone he comes across. One truly remarkable scene has a long take of the camera floating around a village, capturing the townsfolk rehearsing the dialogue of "Gone with the Wind", in preparation for their 'screen tests'. We see old men, young boys, teenage girls, and even deaf mutes in preparation. But by the time the second half rolls around, it has become a full-blown tragedy, where Joe is unable to extricate himself from the grave that he has dug himself. It is only at the end that Joe can feel the pain of those he watched through the camera lens during the 'screen tests'. Stripped of his camera, there is nothing left to distance him from the sense of loss. A very depressing ending, and not quite as hopeful as the one in "Cinema Paradiso"
Though not Tornatore at his best, it still has its merits to demand at least one viewing.