Irene is keen at finding flaws, and reluctant to commit to permanence. In that sense, her job couldn’t be more ideal: secret hotel inspector.
She travels around to five-star resorts, sampling the food, checking the dust on the mantels, rating the efficiency of the staff. Already deep into a stylish middle age, Irene is aware that her status is unusual and perhaps unsustainable. She knows this not so much because she feels great angst about it — by the looks of things, she doesn’t — but because other people keep implying that her nomadic life must be unfulfilling in some essential way.
Irene, played by Margherita Buy, is the protagonist of “A Five Star Life,” a film written and directed by Maria Sole Tognazzi. (The Italian title is “Viaggio Sole,” so something like “Solo Traveler” would’ve been a better English title.)
With this set-up, you can see the movie’s conventional arc shaping up: a mid-life crisis, epiphanies involving children and a new man, and a last-act expression of growing and learning. But Tognazzi and Buy aren’t having it.
In Buy’s splendidly neutral performance, Irene does do some soul-searching, but she will not fit into the art house formula; Tognazzi invents situations that seem to promise a cozy solution, and then casually sidesteps them.
Irene’s sister (Fabrizia Sacchi), for instance, is married with kids, but if this example brings Irene a pang about not being a mother, she doesn’t sweat it too much. Irene’s ex-beau (Stefano Accorsi), still a friend and currently going through his own mid-life uncertainty, seems a possible option for Irene, or then again maybe not. Even a pleasantly flirtatious encounter with a stranger at a Marrakesh hotel ends without melodrama — or even drama.
In short, Tognazzi is doing something subtly heroic here. She delivers the requisite eye candy, but she denies us the tidy resolution.
Instead she seems to ask: Who are we to decide that Irene needs to “grow” and “learn”? Irene may well be lonely at times, but so is everybody else, at times. Is it just possible that she doesn’t need to have children or take a husband in order to be all right?
Every ounce of our movie-watching history tells us resolution needs to happen — but why? There’s a great scene at the very end of “A Five Star Life” that flirts with the possibility of the movie falling into the very cliché that Tognazzi has been avoiding all along, but not to worry. This movie is smarter than that.
“A Five Star Life” (3 stars)
A subtle character study about a secret hotel inspector (Margherita Buy) forced to question whether her nomadic existence might be just a little unfulfilling. The movie keeps threatening to take this toward a conventional resolution, but refreshingly, it keeps going in interesting directions. In Italian, with English subtitles.
Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter
Shiowing: Seven Gables.