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‘Like Crazy’ a chance to see great actress at her best


“Like Crazy” (the Italian title is better: “La Pazza Gioia”) arrives in America on a wave of approbation, and all of it deserved. A big hit in Italy, where it won top prizes, it’s the story of two very different women who go on a road trip. What they have in common is that they have just escaped from a mental institution.

For one of the actresses, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, this is not the first time she has been institutionalized. Tedeschi became famous in 1993 for playing a woman who blossoms in the nuthouse (“Normal People Are Nothing Exceptional”), and, in her acting, she has made several to the padded walls over the years. But “Like Crazy” provides her with her best opportunity to depict mental instability, and her performance couldn’t be better.

This is a movie that can be enjoyed in different ways and for lots of reasons. It’s dramatic and it’s funny, and it has a warm humanity at its center. But you might also watch it as a tailor-made showcase for a world-class actress. For the comparatively few Americans who already know Tedeschi, nothing more needs to be said. For the rest, “Like Crazy” is a golden entry into one of the great careers, a chance to discover one of the most idiosyncratic and endearing of actresses working today.

The opening scene is a perfect introduction to the character and to what Tedeschi can do with her. We see her breezing through the tended grounds of a great palazzo, dressed impeccably and looking magnificent, barking instructions at everyone she sees. She is grand and sure of herself and yet faintly ridiculous, and soon we realize that no one is listening to her. She is not a landowner ordering her servants around. This is a sanitarium, and Beatrice (Tedeschi) is one of the inmates.

Beatrice is a wonderful comic character. She is erratic, swinging at will from magnificence to insecurity, and from diffidence to rage. She is compulsively honest and says the most appalling things without realizing. She is always having her dignity undercut, which means that she is invariably warding off shame even as she is asserting herself. And because she was born fabulously rich, Beatrice has a social ease that belies her reduced situation.

Paolo Virzi, who wrote and directed the film, must have had Tedeschi in mind as he was conceiving it. Like Beatrice, Tedeschi was also born into great wealth. And Virzi cast Tedeschi’s own mother (Marisa Borini) to play the mother of Beatrice.

The film traces a bond that grows between the overbearing Beatrice and a woman who is her complete opposite, Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti), who is withdrawn and poor, with a tortured past. Ramazzotti (who is married to Virzi) gives the film’s other extraordinary performance, one in a very different register from that of Tedeschi. Watching them is like watching a muralist and a miniaturist create masterpieces side by side.

By the way, though Tedeschi was born in Italy, she moved to France with her family when she was 10 years old, and she has made the vast majority of her films in France. But in recent years, she has been going back to her roots and taking a lot more roles in Italy. Tedeschi combines the raw sensuality of an Anna Magnani with melancholic introspection of a Monica Vitti and is well worth discovering.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic. Email: mlasalle@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @MickLaSalle



Like Crazy

WILD APPLAUSE

Comedy-Drama. Starring Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Micaela Ramazzotti. Directed by Paolo Virzi. In Italian with Engish subtitles. (Unrated. 118 minutes.)



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