The Moon and the Stars (DVD)

I prefer the quasar and the nebulae.

What is The Moon and the Stars about? In one way, it’s about a group of filmmakers and actors trying to get their movie finished before World War II breaks out. In another way, it’s harder to describe. The Moon and the Stars is about art versus politics, art versus business, the cost of fame, the nature of sacrifice, and a lot more.

It’s Italy, 1939. Italian Davide Rieti (Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2) is funding the production of a historic epic. Among his cast are a bawdy Englishman, James Clavel (Jonathan Pryce, Brazil), and a lovely German starlet Kristina Baumgarten (Catherine McCormick, Shadow of the Vampire). Fascism is on the rise, and many members of the production feel the pressure to get out of dodge before the war breaks out. In this multinational group, Germans and Italians are essentially safe, the English want to get out while they can, and anyone Jewish is in danger, already living in secret. Ditto for anyone homosexual. Rieti is both gay and Jewish, putting him in more jeopardy than anyone else. But, without him, the movie won’t get made.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the themes and ideas presented in the movie, first it must be said that, before anything else, The Moon and the Stars is a well-filmed and well-acted drama. The Italian setting is just gorgeous, and director John Irvin (Hamburger Hill) and director of photography Elemer Ragalyi (Jakob the Liar) bathe the whole thing in lovely golden light. The actors make their characters feel well-rounded and genuine. The script, an increasingly rare ensemble story, has layers on layers, but also possesses a good amount of quirky humor, which keeps the whole thing from getting too dreary.

Beyond the basic drama, though, the film has a lot to say, on a handful of complicated subjects.

• The art and the politics
There’s a scene about halfway through The Moon and the Stars in which the filmmakers screen a key scene in their movie for their financiers, including some politically high-up types. Some object to a violent moment that is key to the story, demanding that it be removed and the plot be rewritten. Others argue that the scene actually makes an anti-violent statement, and this is then found upsetting because it could stir unrest among the public. As the debate rages on, the producer and director have nothing to do but shake their heads, as the discussion strays from the movie’s story and into the changing tides in the government.

All this bunch wants to do is make the movie. It’s where everyone’s hearts are at. As the fascists rapidly rise to power, all this group can focus on is how it will affect filming. It’s not that they’re living in a bubble, or unaware of what’s happening around them, it’s that they are committed to their art, no matter what the cost.

• The art and the commerce
We learn early on that Rieti is an art collector, and proud of it. Later, after his big secrets are revealed and the production gets farther and farther into trouble, Rieti is forced to do the unthinkable and sell off key pieces of his precious collection in order to keep the cameras rolling. This is one of many acts of sacrifice made in order to finish the film. Others make sacrifices as well, whether it’s of their principles, their personal lives, or their safety. But it’s Rieti’s sacrifice that speaks to the “whatever it takes” nature of art and filmmaking, how for these characters no choice is too far in order to preserve the finished product.

• The fame and the obsession
As the movie-within-the-movie’s star, Kristina is the center of attention. There’s a lot of talk about the importance of giving her a close-up, at the expense of some of other actresses’ close-ups. Additionally, there’s a lot of humorous nervousness about whether she’ll do a topless scene—for the good of the film, of course. She is not just the star actress, though. As a German, she is essentially “safe” from the strife happening outside the set, but she too is not immune to the changes. Plus, she has to deal with one of the movie’s quirkier subplots when a psycho stalker takes an interest in her. When the stress gets to her, she eventually turns to Clavel, first for a sympathetic ear, and then for more. This is what kicks off the main romance of the plot.

Just as the plot has several layers, so does the character of Clavel. At first, he seems like the stereotypical “celebrity on a rampage,” throwing tantrums on the set, boozing it up, and hornily pursuing anything female. Both the script and Pryce’s excellent performance, however, gradually reveal more and more of Clavel’s humanity. While others escape the horrors of the upcoming war on trains or by crossing the ocean, Clavel’s “obnoxious actor” persona his way of escaping. His outrageous behavior is a defense mechanism. We know this because of those times when we see the “real” him and how emotional and vulnerable he really is.

The widescreen picture on this disc nicely captures the lush cinematography. The 2.0 sound is decent, but I wonder if it could have better if beefed up to a 5.1 track, especially with the film’s lovely classical musical soundtrack. There’s a big zero for extras, which is another disappointment. It would have been great to hear about the origins of the story anecdotes from the production.

The Moon and the Stars is a fascinating film with terrific acting. The sub-par DVD presentation, though, makes this one better as a rental.

The Verdict

The not guilty and the not guilty.

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