David's Birthday
(Il Compleanno)

Wolfe Video,

Marco Filiberti

Deborah De Furia,
Marco Filiberti

Alessandro Gassman,
Maria de Medeiros,
Massimo Poggio,
Thyago Alves,
Michela Cescon,
Christo Jivkov

Unrated, 106 minutes

Wagner On The Beach
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online November, 2010

Italians love opera. David's Birthday (Il Compleanno), the latest film from Italian filmmaker Marco Filiberti, begins at the opera. The four lead characters are attending a performance of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. The opera's tragic tale of forbidden love and repression will be echoed in the story to come.

A group of middle-aged friends are sharing a beach villa on the Italian Riviera for the summer. Matteo (Massimo Poggio) is a happily married psychologist. Maria de Medeiros (she played Anais Nin in Henry and June) co-stars as his wife Francesca. They have a daughter who is 8. Their friends, Diego and Shary (Alessandro Gassman, Michela Cescon), have been married and separated so many times that they've lost track. They are expecting a visit from their son, David, who has been attending college in New York. He will be spending his birthday with them. Matteo remarks that he hasn't seen David since he was 8 years old.

Matteo is stunned when he sees him again. Ten years have made a big difference and David is a beautiful young man with a mop of curly hair and chiseled muscles. He's also an underwear model. Matteo watches the young Adonis getting out of a pool. "Do you remember me?" he stammers when the youth turns towards him. David smiles, his face lighting up, and says "Yes, you used to hold me in your arms." The moment couldn't be more sexually charged.

From what we have seen thus far, Matteo appears to love his wife. They still enjoy a satisfying sex life. Aside from a propensity to act superior and belittle everyone else's intellect, he seems to have it together. So why is he going all Death in Venice over his best friends' son? We don't know if Matteo has been previously suppressing same sex desires, but one look at David and he is swooning like a schoolgirl. There is a lovely scene in which Matteo is hugging his daughter and Shary is holding David while, at the same time, the two men seem to only have eyes for each other. But a love this forbidden is doomed to tragedy and Wagner's music signals that this will be a catastrophe of operatic proportions.

David's parents add extra color and conflict. Diego is a likable slacker whose lack of ambition is an object of Shary's scorn. Shary raised David by herself in America and, even though she will reconcile with Diego for short periods, she lords this over his head and accuses him of being a weak father. (Diego's only attempt at parenting comes when he suspects his son of being gay after seeing David's portfolio of underwear photos.) Also entering the picture is Shary's troubled, nomadic brother, Leonard (Christo Jivkov). He mourns for Isabelle, the love of his life who committed suicide two years ago. (Or did she? A mystery is raised but then, annoyingly, never given proper closure.) Leonard watches Matteo rub suntan lotion on David's back and senses something is awry.

There is a scene that can be best be described as a soft porn Calvin Klein commercial. David, wearing very skimpy briefs, is hosing himself off while a flustered Matteo watches from behind a bush. Later that night, Matteo masturbates furiously in bed and then practically rapes his wife. The next day, David invites Matteo to ride on a scooter with him. The lyrical image of lovers on a bike is a staple of European romantic cinema; Matteo sits behind David, holding onto him, his face against his back, their bare legs straddling, hairy thighs pressing together. A moonlit grotto scene in which Matteo watches David emerge from the surf recalls the staging for Wagner's opera in the opening scene. When they finally do it, it is one of the most hot blooded and passionate love scenes between two men that I have ever seen.

David's Birthday is a nicely executed melodrama that engages the viewer. There's enough drama to sustain a mini-series and it never gets boring. Everyone is on edge; the heat is stifling and contributes to the mood swings, tempers and sexual heat. The dynamics between the two couples are nicely rendered. Francesca, frustrated by an inability to live up to her husband's intellectual demands, realizes that something is wrong but is unable to discern what. Diego and Shary live separate lives on separate continents and are unable to reconcile their differences. I can't help wondering though if parts are missing, or were cut, because Matteo's wild personality change, after he sees David, seems to come out of nowhere. He shows a nasty side that wasn't in evidence during the film's first half hour when the worst things we see him do are correcting Diego's grammar and laughing at a patient's confession during therapy. More back story is needed to reconcile this discrepency. Meanwhile, David is a blank cipher, and then there's the unanswered questions raised about Leonard and Isabelle.

I was expecting tragedy but director Filiberti goes a bit too far with the abrupt ending of David's Birthday. Well, as Bugs Bunny says while being carried away by Elmer Fudd at the end of the classic Chuck Jones cartoon, What's Opera Doc, "So what did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?" No, I didn't, but did it have to be this extreme? I enjoyed most of David's Birthday but found the ending too over the top. Okay, it's tragic like the opera they watched; it shows the devastating effects of suppression but does it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. David and Matteo's tryst needed to have consequences otherwise there would be no conflict and hence no drama, but come on already - this ending goes beyond even opera into the Punch & Judy realm of Kabuki. Filiberti's previous film, 2003's Adored, also ended with one unnecessary tragedy too many. The ending is certainly plausible but film is more subtle than opera and usually requires strokes less broad.

Aside from my script quibbles, David's Birthday's style gets an A for execution. It is a handsome production, slickly filmed and well-acted. Look for a lot of lush beach scenes and eye candy. Filiberti's camera is in love with David. Most viewers will undoubtedly drool over him, but this bear loving reviewer had his eyes more on the bearded and hirsute Matteo. You could call this another variation on Thomas Mann's novel, Death in Venice (and the Visconti / Dirk Bogarde film) but, in this case, the object of the older man's lust is legal and eighteen. Fans of Douglas Sirk's melodramas from the 1950s will find much to admire. Ambitious but uneven, David's Birthday is an entertaining guilty pleasure that grows on you the more that you ponder the tangled web it weaves.


More on Marco Filiberti:

Maria de Medeiros also appears in:
Shelter Me