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Retro Review: HOTEL COLONIAL (1987)

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HOTEL COLONIAL
(US/Italy - 1987)

Directed by Cinzia Th. Torrini. Written by Enzo Monteleone, Cinzia Th. Torrini, Robert Katz and Ira R. Barmak. Cast: John Savage, Rachel Ward, Robert Duvall, Massimo Troisi, Anna Galiena, Claudio Baez, Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, Isela Diaz, Demian Bichir, Areceli Jurado, Daniel Santa Lucia. (R, 103 mins)

Dumped in one theater in both NYC and Los Angeles for a week by Orion in September 1987 before turning up at every video store in America, the obscure US/Italian co-production HOTEL COLONIAL wants to be a Graham Greene-style tale of a stranger in a strange land getting involved with all manner of mystery and intrigue, but it's little more than a sleepy John Savage travelogue. With THE DEER HUNTER, HAIR, and THE ONION FIELD in his rearview and Lucio Fulci's tedious swan song DOOR TO SILENCE on the horizon, Savage stars as Marco Venieri, an Italian-born New Yorker whose phone rings at 4:00 am informing him that his older brother and former Red Brigade terrorist Luca has committed suicide in Buenaventura, Colombia. Marco hasn't seen Luca in almost ten years, shortly before Luca was granted an early release after cooperating and ratting on other, more high-ranking Red Brigade figures and quickly high-tailing it to South America. At the request of Luca's ex-wife Francesca (Anna Galiena, who's only heard on the phone but remains fifth-billed, a good indication that her role was cut), Marco heads to Colombia to claim the body and bring it to Rome only to find that the body isn't Luca's. This sends him on a slow-moving goose chase from Colombia to Brazil and back again, not helped by Irene Costa (a terribly underutilized Rachel Ward), his contact at the Italian embassy in Colombia, who's prone to cryptic bullshit like "Whatever you're looking for, you won't find it here." If she means things action, suspense, or a point, she's right.


The trail to Luca eventually leads Marco to the titular hotel in Bogota, owned by gregarious cocaine trafficker Roberto Carrasco, played by a hilariously miscast Robert Duvall in possibly the most ridiculous role of his career. The Carrasco character is just one of many aspects of HOTEL COLONIAL that's handled in a botched fashion by director/co-writer Cinzia Th. Torrini, an Italian documentary filmmaker who found some acclaim for her 1982 narrative feature GIOCARE D'AZZARDO, which earned her a Best New Director nomination at the David di Donatello Awards, the Italian equivalent of the Oscars. Upon hearing of Luca's death, Marco recalls the last time he visited his brother in prison, and even though Torrini shoots this flashback in murky, grainy black & white, it's pretty clear that it's Robert Duvall speaking with a garbled Italian accent and hiding behind a black wig and thick beard in the least convincing disguise this side of "Richie" in COLOR OF NIGHT. This comes just a few minutes after the opening credits, which include "and Robert Duvall as Roberto Carrasco." As a result, when Duvall turns up again nearly an hour later as "Carrasco," it's not really a surprise when he's eventually revealed to be Luca, and the only mystery how long it'll take Savage's dim Marco to finally figure it out. We know Duvall is in the movie and we're almost immediately shown that he's Luca. There's no hook to the mystery and no reason to care. Imagine THE USUAL SUSPECTS showing the Keyser Soze police sketch coming out of the fax machine ten minutes into the movie after we just saw a credit reading "and Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint."

After looking like a Next Big Thing at the end of the '70s, Savage peaked quickly. His career was already in decline by the time he got to HOTEL COLONIAL, even though he had a brief but memorable bit two years later as Clifton, the "I own this brownstone!" Celtics fan carelessly smudging Buggin' Out's brand new Jordans in DO THE RIGHT THING, and he had a small role as the priest son of the absent Duvall's late Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER PART III. But it's hard knowing what drew Duvall to this film. It's not exactly a case of an overqualified actor slumming in an '80s Italian exploitation outing, even though a couple familiar dubbing voices can be heard among the supporting cast (which features EL NORTE's Zaide Silvia Gutierrez in a thankless role as a cafe server as well as two future Oscar nominees with IL POSTINO's Massimo Troisi as an Italian-born Bogota charter boat captain improbably named "Werner," and A BETTER LIFE's Demian Bichir in younger days as a nervous Hotel Colonial desk clerk). No, Duvall was probably drawn to it because of Torrini's acclaim in Italy as well as some reputable behind-the-scenes personnel, including co-writer and past Liliana Cavani collaborator Robert Katz (THE SKIN); regular Fellini cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; frequent Sergio Leone editor Nino Baragli; production manager Alessandro Tasca, an Orson Welles associate on CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and the unfinished DON QUIXOTE; and go-to Brian De Palma composer Pino Donaggio, whose work here is among his least essential, other than "Stranger," the Al Stewart-esque earworm of a closing credits song.





Duvall might've thought he was getting involved in some Italian prestige project with a couple of free vacations as a bonus (shooting was done in Mexico and Italy), but here he is, chewing the scenery with wild abandon just four years removed from his TENDER MERCIES Oscar, making you wish HOTEL COLONIAL was as entertaining a movie as the one Duvall seems to imagine he's in. Sporting a blond wig, an ascot, and usually seen smirking and strutting around in a sleeveless safari shirt, Duvall handles a gator, wrestles an anaconda, snorts blow, and regales Savage and the viewer with his best open-mic night Tony Montana impression, advising Marco "Jew want sumting? Jew take it! Jew don't aahnsore to no one!"It's hilarious even without taking into consideration that Marco somehow can't tell that Carrasco is his supposedly dead brother and it's supposed to be a surprise when he spills the beans ("You had plastic surgery!" Marco yells; nope, always looked like Robert Duvall). The kind of movie that has Carrasco conducting a drug exchange with a buyer in front of huge window during a dinner party just so Marco can stumble on it from a distance and watch the deal go down, HOTEL COLONIAL (just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion, because physical media is dead) doesn't even register a pulse until Duvall finally shows up, though even that's marred by the late introduction of a Carrasco pedophilia ring that generates more nausea than suspense. Duvall remains a national treasure, and this forgotten misfire is ultimately a very minor footnote to his career. He had the controversial COLORS in theaters the next year and the beloved LONESOME DOVE on TV the year after that, though if you're a Duvall completist, HOTEL COLONIAL might be worth checking out just for his over-the-top histrionics.

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