The Embalmer

First Run Features,

Matteo Garrone

Ugo Chiti,
Matteo Garrone

Ernesto Mahieux,
Valerio Foglia Manzillo, Elisabetta Rocchetti, Lina Bernardi, Pietro Biondi, Bernardino Terracciano

Unrated, 96 minutes

Size Matters Not
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, July 2009

Has there ever been a more attention-deficit hunk in the history of queer cinema than Valerio in Matteo Garrone's The Embalmer? This truly bizarre Italian import, filmed in 2002, pulls the audience into an unlikely relationship fueled by lust, jealousy and control issues. Swimming into uncharted waters, the filmmakers reject convention by offering a dwarf as a sexual predator.

Peppino Profeta (Ernesto Mahieux) is a diminutive taxidermist who seems, at first, to be mostly harmless. But appearances can be deceiving and Peppino should not be underestimated because of his size. Barely five feet tall, fifty-ish, homely and balding, he is a man with a gift for manipulating the gullible in order to satisfy his needs. As the film opens, he is stalking his prey at the zoo. Standing before a vulture's cage, he strikes up a conversation with the much taller man already there. Valerio (Valerio Foglia Manzillo) is extremely handsome and his six foot-plus frame towers over the deceptive dwarf.

Both men enjoy animals and so Peppino, who clearly desires the young man, gives Valerio his card and invites him to visit his shop. Soon, the mesmerized Valerio is working for the taxidermist and blissfully learning the trade. Flattery goes straight to the handsome hunk's head and, before long, he is leaving his girlfriend - despite her dire warnings that Peppino works for the mob - and moving in with his new mentor. When it comes to the relationships in his life, Valerio has the attention span of a child and responds easily to instant gratification. If he is told that he looks like a god, it matters little who says it. Peppino slowly plans his seduction with skill. First comes the lure of a job with good pay. Next an offer of lodging. Then a pair of prostitutes; Peppino's present for a hard day's work. As Valerio enjoys wild sex with one of the women, Peppino watches them intently. On a repeat performance, all four share the same bed. All of this is getting creepier and creepier, while Valerio seems oblivious to his benefactor's agenda.

But then fate deals a wild card. While waiting for Peppino's car to be fixed, Valerio is being watched again. This time it is a beautiful woman. Her name is Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti) and, before you can blink, eye contact has graduated to pure lust and Valerio has forgotten all about his employer. He brings Deborah home and Peppino, predictably, is not pleased. Deborah also wants Valerio to herself. She sees through the dwarf immediately and instinctively recognizes his motives. Both Peppino and Deborah rightfully perceive the other as a threat and a power struggle begins with Valerio caught in the middle.
The Embalmer is a truly creepy psychological study that takes its audience into very dark places. It is appropriate that the movie's opening scene, set in front of the vulture's cage, is often filmed through the carrion bird's eyes. Peppino will be revealed to be a very dangerous man and his obsession with the young acolyte threatens to devour him. Deborah, in the meantime, will prove to be a formidable opponent.
The film raises more questions than it answers. How, for example, can a gay dwarf bend a supposedly straight hunk to his will? When Deborah demands to know if anything has ever happened between her beau and his boss, Valerio vehemently denies the charge even though he is actually in the dark as much as the audience. You see, it is left deliberately unclear whether or not the dwarf achieved his goal one night when he sent the prostitutes home and his prey was too drunk to realize that they were gone.
It is difficult to read Valerio's character but this ambiguity adds to the film's interest. Can the dumb stud really be as clueless as he first appears to be? Despite a propensity for being led by his penis, he is still, in many ways, a complete innocent who reacts as a child would whenever he receives positive reinforcement. Even when he does finally seem to awaken from his fog, he still bends easily to the dwarf's subtle manipulations. Deborah offers beauty and a traditional bourgeois family life but the easily distracted hunk is unable to resist the lure of Peppino's money and fast women.
The world of The Embalmer is one in which the color has been drained from it and the ensuing visuals are bleak and arid. Director Garrone has a nice eye for the cinematic image but, regrettably, many of them are too dark and this is the film's one major flaw. The cast is superb. Mahieux's Peppino, despite his small stature, dominates every scene in which he appears. Rest assured that he will evoke no memories of Herve Villechaize ringing a bell and screaming "The plane! The plane!" on Fantasy Island; his performance is remarkable. He is not your typical screen villain, he even manages to inspire pity.

The danger he poses will explode in the final minutes of this truly subversive and unconventional thriller. Fear not, The Embalmer doesn't turn into a bad horror film in which the tiny taxidermist plans to stuff his prey, or his adversary, and add them to his collection. This is a beautifully crafted, and thoroughly disturbing, character-driven film. Perhaps some of the final scenes may strain credibility for some but, as any criminologist can tell you, predicting human behavior is by no means an exact science.

Note: Matteo Garrone directed the recent Italian mob drama, Gomorrah.