Cute kids are a regular feature of Steven Spielberg's movies, but it will be a cold day in Jurassic Park before a Spielberg film embraces a family like Leolo Lozone's.
"Because I dream, I'm not," intones the youngster at the center of Jean-Claude Lauzon's semiautobiographical tour de force, Leolo. Not insane, like his father. Not French-Canadian, like his mother. Not fear-driven, like his brother. Not doomed, like his sisters. It is only his ability to conjure up an imaginary world that enables the boy to escape the debilitating madness that plagues his oppressively dysfunctional family.
Try to picture this scene in a Spielberg flick: young Leo Lauzon (the director's on-screen proxy) sits on a plastic trainer potty in the bathroom of his family's dilapidated row house. His grotesque cement mixer of a mother, who dwarfs the regular toilet, groans as she tries to teach Leo how to stimulate a proper bowel movement.
Leo's family is obsessed with bodily functions; every Friday they line up and drop laxatives. The parents maintain a constant vigil, monitoring the contents of the toilet bowl. "Grandma believed a shit a day keeps the doctor away," Leo explains. "My earliest memories were the sights and smells of the bathroom."
Although born French-Canadian, Leo fancies himself Italian. He insists that his family call him Leolo Lozone, and has concocted an elaborate theory regarding his conception that involves a Sicilian farmer, an act of defiant self-abuse, and a crate of tomatoes.
It's brilliant, if scatologically overboard, filmmaking. Lauzon wrote much of Leolo while living in Sicily and filmed part of it at the famed Cinecitta Studios, Fellini's old stomping ground. Ironically, the finished product is as wry, tragic, perceptive, and exuberantly imaginative as the work of the master himself. But like much of Fellini's output, it is not for the squeamish. Masturbation and defecation are the film's two recurring themes, and perversion, child abuse, and bestiality enter into the mix, as well. While Leolo is not visually graphic, it is extremely frank (some would say crude).
But Lauzon's touch is deft and his vision sure. Whimsy, insight, and compassion defuse much of the potential repulsiveness. Leolo's grandfather, for example, is a real sicko; he pays fifteen-year-old Bianca, Leolo's neighbor and the object of the young boy's budding but repressed romantic desire, to expose her breasts while she bites off his toenails as he bathes. Leolo watches surreptitiously, unsure whether he should feel titillated or disgusted. He opts for a little of both.
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It is this ambivalence that makes Leolo so extraordinary. The boy endures humiliation with grace and bemusement, and when the going gets really rough, he escapes into the pleasures of the written word, both as a reader and a writer.
The tone is light in the early going; things get nastier as Leolo grows up. Scenes of the Lauzon family as a collection of eccentric losers don't seem nearly as funny when one member after another is institutionalized. It's hard to get too upset when the disturbed grandfather loses his temper over getting splashed and tries to drown the kid in a wading pool, because Leolo relays the whole event with detached calm, as if he were never really in jeopardy. It is much more harrowing later on, when Leolo, who has come to blame the patriarch for all of his family's woes, constructs an elaborate, Rube Goldbergian gallows with which he nearly succeeds in brutally dispatching the rotten old codger.
Leolo's brother is a cowardly bodybuilder. His sisters drift in and out of touch with reality. His father is an ignorant, defeated day laborer. His mother is a well-meaning, oblivious tyrant. His grandfather is a sadistic pervert.
Transforming all those disparate, potentially depressing characters into a poignant, compelling film is a formidable accomplishment. If Lauzon could have figured out a way to work in a tyrannosaurus or an extraterrestrial, he might have had something.