Robert Towne signs his own masterpiece

il Centro
Cultura & Società
26 april 2006

by Paolo Di Vincenzo

Any novel, even the greatest ones, cannot be literally translated into cinema. That is why integralist Fante fans might not approve Robert Towne's choices. But the Academy Award winning scriptwriter of "Chinatown" (directed by Roman Polanski) in his rendering of "Ask the dust" from the written form to the screen was somehow able to make it better.

And not because the wonderful novel by John Fante, the American writer of Abruzzese origin, was in need of an improvement, but because Towne (who met Fante when the writer was still living, and promised he would one day turn his best loved work into a movie, a promise that he was able to keep only 23 years after the writer's death) went deeper into the love story between Arturo Bandini and Camilla Lopez, wonderfully played by Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. Towne analyzed the stories of two immigrants in the States in the 1930's, the former an Italian who feverishly wants to become a writer (a perfect alter ego of John Fante, the son of a mason from Torricella Peligna), who nurtures a deep love/hate relationship to Camilla, attracted as he is by her fascinating beauty, but resisting to the reflection of himself that he sees in her: the immigrant-loser; the latter, a Mexican who aspires to rise from her status - she is a bar cleaner - by marrying a WASP (=White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) American to create a better future for her children.

In a word, Towne enriched with all the tools of his art the novel "Ask the Dust" turning it into a sort of "Traviata" or "Lady of Camelias" - the novel by Alexandre Dumas that inspired Verdi's opera - set in the post-Depression years, in the Los Angeles of the Thirties. In this context, the love story is troubled not because of social prejudice, but of a race-ethnic problem: both are immigrants, and are afraid of establishing a lasting relationship since they would feel as two-fold immigrants. But love prevails.

In addition to the interpretations of the leading actor and actress and the exceptional cast, above all an absolutely perfect Donald Sutherland in the role of Hellfrick, a special mention is to be ascribed to the unforgettable photography of Caleb Deschanel, the editing by Robert K. Lambert and the costume design by Albert Wolsky. A further added value is the production by Tom Cruise (with Paula Wagner, Paula Wagner, Don Granger, Jonas McCord) which hopefully will give more visibility to the movie.