Passion

on September 29, 1996 by Lael Loewenstein
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   Originally filmed for video but, given the strength of response so far, a possibility as a theatrical release, "Passion" dazzled during its world premiere at the San Francisco fest. That is no small feat, because stage-to-screen adaptations are a risky proposition to begin with: If not sufficiently opened for the camera, the play can seem stilted and static.
   "Passion" makes no pretense of being anything other than a filmed play. The 1994 Tony-award winning best musical, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Passion" won critical praise but little audience affection. It was considered remote, aloof, and hard to like—which, for a play about passion, was the ultimate irony.
   Happily, this version overcomes those obstacles and connects with viewers. The story follows Giorgio (Jere Shea), a handsome young army officer who finds himself stationed in Italy far away from his love, the beautiful, married Clara (Marin Mazzie). Giorgio soon meets the pale, mortally ill Fosca (Donna Murphy), who falls madly in love with him. But the homely Fosca is to Clara what a beat-up Buick is to an Alfa Romeo convertible. He tries to escape her attentions at every turn and bluntly informs her he shall never return her feelings. But slowly, the ice encasing Giorgio's heart melts away, leading to a brief and loving encounter with Fosca.
   The growing rapport between Giorgio and Fosca is a marvel to behold. Murphy, quite simply, is transcendent: Her face caked in ghostly make-up with a repugnant mole, her body hidden in unflattering frocks and her hair pulled back in a severe bun, she looks like Mary Todd Lincoln on a bad day. But she rises above her physical limitations and, through her wisdom, her kindness and her unconditional love, compels Giorgio to love her.
   The score, with its rippling leitmotifs, is vintage Sondheim. And Lapine's directorial choices work well: the well-chosen close-ups of Murphy and Shea's faces add the warmth and emotional intimacy that may have been lacking from the stage version. A few cinematic touches also enhance the piece: A flashback sequence is filmed in sepia tones, and a battle sequence is cut together in an effective montage. There's only one real misstep: The climactic love sequence is filmed and lit so grotesquely that it detracts from the integrity of the moment. Still, "Passion" is moving and beautifully acted. Actors Murphy and Shea seem both moved spontaneously to tears by the realization ofFosca and Giorgio's love, and viewers may be too.    Starring Donna Murphy, Jere Shea and Marin Mazzie. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Written and directed by James Lapine. Produced by Kimberly Myers. Musical. Not yet rated. Running time: 115 min. Screened at the San Francisco fest.
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