There are certain books I re-read from year to year, always finding something new in them, and there are a handful of films that fall into that category too. One of them is writer, director and actor John Turturro’s 2014 elegiac gem, Fading Gigolo. It’s a film that surprised me: When I saw Woody Allen’s face next to Turturro’s on the movie poster, I assumed it was his film and would thus be marked by his neurotic and slightly acerbic wit. And indeed, some of Allen’s trademark humor finds its way to Fading Gigolo, and one could say there’s a lot of Allen in this film, period, because Turturro quite obviously paid homage to him. The beauty of New York City (here caught in the dappled shade and golden glow of autumn, which seems to triple its beauty); the sweetly soft and melancholic jazz score; the story itself, which acknowledges the bittersweetness of life’s relationships (its inevitable losses, deeply felt yet lightened by the possibility of new beginnings); and yes, the humor, the sense of absurd comedy that plays out in the daily lives of humans: all of these Woody-esque elements are in Fading Gigolo, though under Turturro’s vision and lens they are softened, achieving a subtlety that has the effect of making the viewer feel he is watching a Woody Allen film through a veil. Whereas the humor in a Woody Allen film can sometimes feel jarring or tangential to the point that it almost seems to occupy its own separate room in the story, here it is toned down in a way that recalls Allen’s more sublime films like Midnight in Paris or Hannah and Her Sisters. Though understated, Turturro very capably evokes the famous director’s offbeat brand of storytelling: at its heart, Fading Gigolo is a story about human connection, arrived at by observing the various ways a person can feel lonely and through a flow of events that are, by turns, comic, tender, sad, and romantically sweet.
Woody Allen’s character Murray is the instigator of the story. Murray is the aging owner of a rare-books bookstore in Manhattan, started by his grandfather, that is no longer doing enough business to keep it afloat, and is lamenting this fact to long-time employee and friend Fioravante (John Turturro) in the film’s opening scene, as the two men empty shelves in preparation for its closing. Murray then tells Fioravante about a conversation he had with his dermatologist earlier in the day. While visiting her office for a procedure, the dermatologist confided to him that she and a girlfriend planned to pursue something they’d never done before—a ménage a trois—and she wondered if he might know someone willing to help them out with that fantasy, a man they could trust. Murray said he did know someone who would do it—for a thousand dollars. The person he had in mind is Fioravante, he tells his friend. Fioravante looks at him in surprise but Murray is serious and brings up the fact that Fioravante is living hand-to-mouth with his part-time jobs at a flower shop and the now-closed bookstore. While admitting this to be true, Fioravante isn’t interested. “You need a young, slick, leading-man type,” he tells Murray a day later at the florist shop, where he’s carefully potting an orchid when Murray shows up to resume the discussion, spurred by the fact that the dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), has already phoned him again. “I’m not a beautiful man,” Fioravante protests, but Murray is relentless in trying to convince him that he’s perfect for the job.
Naturally, Murray is right. When Fioravante finally agrees to show up at Dr. Parker’s wealthy address for a one-on-one tryst (because she wants to see what she thinks of him first), he does so with impeccable grooming, smooth styling, and something else that’s hinted at in a gift he brings her. The gift is a small detail in the film but, coupled with what we already know about him, bears witness to the fact that a job is never just a job to Fioravante; it hints at the soulful sensitivity he will bring to this new vocation. And a vocation is exactly what it becomes after he leaves Dr. Parker’s with an envelope in which she has not only placed the agreed-upon cash but a five-hundred dollar tip. After taking his cut (he made the arrangements, after all), an excited Murray starts lining up more clients for Fioravante, effectively becoming his pimp. Murray proves to be an ace at his new job, too; on his daily jaunts through the city, even while visiting Central Park, he has an eye for scouting out women who might appreciate Fioravante’s services, and judging by the blissful looks on their faces after their various rendezvous with him, they clearly do. Dr. Parker declares him “top shelf” and is now somewhat reluctant about sharing him with her sexy friend Selima (Sofía Vergara) as they make plans for their threesome.
Then one day Murray brings a very different woman to Fioravante’s apartment. Avigal (played by French actress Vanessa Paradis) is a young widow from one of the Hassidic Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn – a mother of six children whose husband, a rabbi, has been dead for two years. Murray knows her because he purchased her husband’s collection of books after he died, and on an unrelated visit to her home, he senses her deep loneliness. A devout woman living under the rules and the watchful neighborhood eyes of her religious sect, Avigal carefully considers Murray’s suggestion that she venture outside her sheltered environs to visit someone who might help her. When he comes back with a car to escort her to Manhattan, she assumes he is taking her to a healer of some sort, and when they arrive at Fioravante’s place that expectation is still on her face as she gazes hesitantly at the massage table he has set up.
The rest of the film is theirs—Fioravante’s and Avigal’s—though other characters in its ensemble cast continue to play important roles. It is theirs by virtue of the acting: Paradis has little dialogue yet speaks oceans with her eyes; Turturro plays the quietly soulful type with everyday-man casualness. And it is theirs by virtue of the story itself: these two meet where the probability of such an encounter seems unlikely, and when that is the case—when two people have to reach beyond what is the norm—any romance that ensues really is on a different level from most romances. It’s a higher kind of love, often a quieter kind of love, and transformational, even if only in a stepping-stone kind of way, as it is for Avigal. Her connection with Fioravante (whose name, she discovers, means “Flower”) allows her to bloom, to reawaken, and perhaps, in a certain sense, to start over.
Of course, while this is happening lots of other stuff is happening in the story, too: some of it sweetly comic, some of it more darkly comic, allowing the film to make a serious observation or two about life, love, and religion while treading a path that is mostly lighthearted. That’s not an easy balance to pull off in any form of storytelling, though Turturro makes it look easy here. Fading Gigolo is an autumnal slice of cinema tinged by melancholy, peppered with characters well-past the summers of their youth, and at the same time, it is a film of airy, elegant understatement. Like the sunlight of autumn that is briefer yet more piercing than summer’s long light, it is one of those deceptively small films that touches the heart more fully than one would imagine.
Images are film stills from the 2014 film Fading Gigolo, written and directed by John Turturro (who also plays the lead character, Fioravante), which I found at various places on the Internet. The film can be rented or purchased as an instant video on Amazon.com.( No affiliation; I just love the film!)