For decades filmmakers had planned to adapt Ennio Flaiano's 1949 novel The Short Cut, aka A Killing Time, for the screen. Jules Dassin was very interested, and Darryl F. Zanuck held the option on the material for almost 20 years. When Franco-Italian producers finally realized the project in 1989 as TIME TO KILL, however, it hardly received any publicity...read more
For decades filmmakers had planned to adapt Ennio Flaiano's 1949 novel The Short Cut, aka A Killing Time, for the screen. Jules Dassin was very interested, and Darryl F. Zanuck held the option on the material for almost 20 years. When Franco-Italian producers finally realized the project
in 1989 as TIME TO KILL, however, it hardly received any publicity stateside, going quietly to home video in 1991.
Enrico Silvestri (Nicolas Cage) is a young soldier in Ethiopia, a part of the Italian occupation forces who invaded North Africa in 1935. The nation is conquered, but the countryside remains a perilous place. Nevertheless, Enrico develops a toothache that sends him journeying alone in search of a
dentist. Rumors of a short cut to a well-equipped military camp make Enrico leave the road, and he gets lost. At an oasis the soldier encounters an enticing native girl, Mariam (Patrice Flora Praxo), bathing alone. Rape follows, but pangs of conscience compel Enrico to spend the night with her. At
the sound of a wild animal in the dark, Enrico fires a few shots; one ricochets off a rock and gravely wounds the girl. The soldier "mercifully" finishes her with a bullet in the head and carefully buries the corpse. Having erased the traces of his crime, Enrico resumes his trip to the dentist.
Not long afterward, Enrico is strolling with his comrades when he spies two outcast natives clad in the peculiar white garments the girl had worn. To his horror, Enrico learns they are lepers, their robes a warning for all to avoid catching the highly contagious, lifelong degenerative disease.
Enrico finds a sore on his hand that won't heal, a symptom of leprosy that he contracted from his victim. The panicked soldier hides his condition and frantically tries to secure a boat back to Italy and his loved ones. When all efforts fail, the wretched Enrico winds up in a native village, where
he confesses all to the father of the slain girl. The grief-stricken old man, a Christian, forgives the soldier and uses a mysterious potion to cure him (there's enough ambiguity to suggest that Enrico's malady was actually festering remorse). Enrico rejoins his regiment as they're shipped back
home, but heavy-handed closing commentary indicates that men like him don't learn their lessons from the Ethiopian experience; a few years later Italy plunged into the fever of WWII.
The disease aspect makes Enrico's dilemma seem even more harrowing now than it was 40 years ago, but TIME TO KILL comes across as a stolid and strangely unmoving piece. The protagonist presents its greatest problem: even in the novel Enrico was an enigma, an articulate and intelligent character
who could impulsively rape, then love, then murder a girl, then continue yearning for his family and bride waiting back home. Even first-person narration couldn't reconcile the contradictions, and on film the part becomes an actor's nightmare for Nicolas Cage (RAISING ARIZONA, MOONSTRUCK, WILD AT
HEART), who must also spend the crucial beginning of the tale in a daze from the painful toothache. Cage is a capable performer who's played over-the-edge roles before, but only intermittently does he bring Enrico's agony and desperation to life.
The screenplay by Furio Scarpelli, Giuliano Montaldo, Virzi Paolo and Giacomo Scarpelli does away with the book's interior monologues by passing narration duties to the ersatz personage of Enrico's barracks-buddy Mario (Ricky Tognazzi), who's barely involved at all. Veteran Italian thespian
Giancarlo Giannini has a meatier assignment as a boisterous officer who, ironically, becomes another casualty of the hero's thoughtlessness.
Director Giuliano Montaldo spreads the girl's death over a fragmentary series of flashbacks, diluting the awfulness of the deed. He does manage a neat trompe l'oeil at the end, seamlessly blending his own footage with old newsreels. The period recreations are impressive, although the dialogue
contains a little too many self-consciously historical references. TIME TO KILL was filmed in English in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Spain at a cost of $10 million. (Violence, substance abuse, profanity, adult situations, sexual situations, nudity.)
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