Hot Docs 2015: Magic Island
Losing a parent is difficult. Losing that parent twice—once to estrangement and once to death—isn’t just difficulty doubled, it’s difficulty squared. This is the emotional math Andrea Schiavelli had to work through when his estranged father, Hollywood character actor Vincent Schiavelli (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Fast Times at Ridgemont High; Ghost), died in 2005. Ten years later, Andrea finds himself forced to revisit some old emotional haunts when he receives word that a bank in Italy found money the elder Schiavelli left in estate.
Making its world premiere at Hot Docs 2015 is director Marco Amenta’s Magic Island, the story that looks at the Schiavelli father/son dynamic as experienced by Andrea in the form of two trips. One trip is his physical travel from Brooklyn to Palermo, Sicily, where his father lived out his last days. The other trip is his emotional journey as he relives childhood memories and confronts the fractured relationship he avoided for well over a decade.
Magic Island is a great example of the mutual exclusivity that exists between story and storytelling in the documentary genre. As has been the case with so many docs before it, the story behind Magic Island is a good one, but its telling fails to do that story proper justice. It’s unfortunate, because it’s an interesting story with four key elements that offer countless storytelling approaches: celebrity, estrangement, death, and money.
(That last item that is the most interesting facet, because Andrea isn’t told over the phone how much money his father left him. This makes at least part of his trip motivated by the potential for a considerable windfall.)
Director Armenta opts against tapping any of these narrative veins, and instead presents something closer to a hybrid film that is part demo reel/part travelogue. The former frequently spotlights Andrea’s considerable musical talent (He plays numerous instruments, and is even shown scoring a film). The latter shows Andrea on a ship, in a car, wandering the streets (sometimes dragging a suitcase), talking on the phone, chasing loose chickens at the house of an old friend of his father’s, and many other perfectly normal but perfectly mundane things. His visit to see his mother (Moonlighting‘s Allyce Beasley) is nice, as are a handful of other scenes scattered throughout the film, but they all fail to tell the story that needs to be told. Instead, they tell things about the guy who happens to be a part of that story, and those things grow dull quickly.
There’s a strong possibility that Andrea Schiavelli is so emotionally guarded that Armenta got the most out of the young man that he possibly could. If that’s the case, Magic Island is a film that would have been better as an “inspired by” drama as opposed to a documentary.