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Film Review: A Hotel Inspector Doesn't Exactly Enjoy Her 'Five Star Life'

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Courtesy Music Box Films
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Everyone who’s ever stayed at a hotel turns into a hotel inspector as soon as the bellman closes the door. Does the bedspread look plush or threadbare? Is the bathroom gleaming or grungy? Will room service arrive promptly and hot or late and cold? In the new Italian film A Five Star Life, Margherita Buy wonders these and other things as a hotel inspector beginning to question the constriction and loneliness of a career that looks awfully glamorous from the outside.

As Maria Sole Tognazzi’s luscious film opens, Irene, a lovely blonde in her fifties, is checking into the first in a series of luxurious establishments in such places as Paris, Gstaad and Morocco. She poses as a mystery guest, sometimes known by the hotel staff but mostly not, with all-encompassing criteria for each inspection. There’s the predictable white-gloved finger run along tops of pictures and cabinets, the stopwatch to time room service, and a thermometer to gauge whether the wine is too warm or the soup not warm enough. When she observes an awkward encounter between a huffy staff person and a young couple who appear to be less sophisticated than the regular clientele, she calls the manager out on it. Nothing gets by her.

Yet a career built on pointing out imperfections seems to be taking its toll. Irene is admittedly lonely, filling in some gaps with her nieces and a former boyfriend. Though she maintains a steely resolve when she's in inspector mode, she’s not impervious to friendly overtures from guests. One man takes her fancy in Morocco, though it stops at “good night.” In Berlin, she strikes up a fast but tragically short friendship with a British woman about her age, played by the great Lesley Manville, one of director Mike Leigh’s peerless company of actors.

The movie is as beautiful to look at as it is to contemplate. Buy is a forceful presence and has a letter-perfect ability to keep her facial expressions in one gear while we know she’s feeling something contradictory. Much has been written about the lack of substantial roles for women past a certain age. Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange blow that theory to smithereens all the time; based on this film, Buy and Manville can join them. Tognazzi proves these two fiftyish women are as interesting and complicated as they are marketable.

A Five Star Life | Dir. Maria Sole Tognazzi | 85 min. | Playing at the Leawood Theater, 3707 W. 95th Street, Overland Park, Kan., 913-642-1133.

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Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.