Illuminata (1998) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

This is writer-director John Turturro's attempt to create a stylish theatrical comedy in the fashion of "Shakespeare in Love". You might say that this is to the end of the 19th century as "Shakespeare in Love" is to the end of the 16th. It even has all the men named with single Italian names like "Tuccio", and plenty of doors and staircases, in an attempt to replicate the feel of the Shakespearean comedies.

In its efforts to be both witty and profound, it seems to me to fail on both counts. It is stylish and it is arty, but I'd say it wanders off very far in the direction of pretentious.  

On the other hand, there are many reasons to rent it. If you think Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night" was hilarious, you'll probably like this. If you have more mainstream tastes, rent this anyway and use the fast forward, because it has plenty of nudity and the photography is gorgeous.

Opinions were sharply divided on this film. Some critics though this was swill, and others thought it was cinema at its best. I'll give you a good example of each, and let's move on. Here is the review from, which thought it was a masterpiece. On the other hand, here's Mr Cranky's overview. 


  • Georgina Cates topless in good light
  • Susan Sarandon topless, but somewhat obscured by a gauze curtain
  • Aida Turturro topless in good light
  • Katherine Borowitz topless in clear light

My take on it is that it was too stylized and meandering, and too artificial in the scenes which were not supposed to be artificial. Some examples:

  • The play-within-a-film, written by the Turturro character, which ultimately was supposed to be moving the audience to tears, is abysmal. It was so bad that I kept waiting for a punch line for the tears, like somebody cutting onions in the theater.
  • The death scene is 1) Gratuitous. It should have been cut. 2) Out of tone with the rest of the movie. 3)Pretentious and totally derivative of Bergman. That ludicrous death scene looks like one of those Bergman parodies from Second City. They were all standing in fixed poses, in artful arrangements, with no movement or gestures when they spoke.  Unfortunately, this scene wasn't supposed to be funny.

The film is filled with good moments, from both the cast and the filmmakers, but it just isn't a cohesive whole. It shows that Turturro may someday make stylish and profound movies, but this one possesses only the promise of greatness, not the delivery. It is just too contrived, too artificial.

On the other hand, a movie that gets Susan Sarandon's top off has to get some respect from me.

DVD info from Amazon

  • full screen

  • Full-length director commentary

  • one deleted scene

Other curiosities to look for:

  • Christopher Walken, even more over-the-top than usual as a mock Oscar Wilde with a foreign accent.
  • Ben Gazzara making a complete fool of himself. Thanks to Ben, this movie was probably the only time in Walken's career when he wasn't the strangest guy in the cast.
  • Bev D'Angelo. Fully dressed, but still looking great. 
  • Katherine Borowitz, Turturro's wife. She's the best thing in the movie by far, IMO. Why isn't she a star?
  • Do you like puppets, kids? Plenty of 'em here.
Tuna's comments in yellow:

Illuminata (1998) is co-authored, directed by, and stars John Turturro. It is about a turn of the 19th century repertory company trying to put on a play written by their resident playwright.

Good points first.

  • One or more breasts from four beautiful women who actually have acting ability.
  • Beautifully filmed.
  • Lots of good performances.
  • Humorous moments, especially for those who have worked in theater.

Now for the not so good.

  • Indifferent dark letterboxed transfer.
  • A very confusing plot. It was hard to tell what was a play, and what was supposed to be real life. The biggest problem for me was caused by the fact that every character should have had three personas. The first, their character, the second, their character playing an actor, and third, their actual character in the play. Lacking this switch from real life, to backstage to on-stage, it was nearly impossible to tell performance from "real life."

    Some critics were wildly enthusiastic, while most were negative, and comments at IMDb reflect the same disparity. Those who liked it, adored it, and everyone else hated it. I can't believe Turturro ever envisioned this as a popular box office draw. This is a classic C+ on our scale, fans praise it to the sky, but detractors, who are in the majority, strongly disliked it. Personally, I found it more than a little confusing, and, for the most part, boring.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 70/100.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 5.7
  • With their dollars ... it bombed. Less than $1 million domestic gross
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is the classic C+ small-audience cult film. Not many people like it, but those who do think it is a masterpiece.

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