“Rimini” is the name of a seaside resort town in Italy, and while it’s probably nice enough in the summer, Austrian writer-director Ulrich Seidl’s film is set during the chilly offseason. It’s a miserable place. The hotels are nearly empty, a dense fog shrouds the beaches, and a small-time hood has made the snack bar his base of operations.
If this Rimini is a depressing place to look at, it’s also a perfect home for Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas), an aging lounge singer who is a legend in his own mind. Every night, he crams his corpulent frame into leopard-skin tights and a sealskin jacket to go out and perform for a handful of elderly tourists who remember him from his heyday 40 years ago. Spring may come again to Rimini, but not for Richie.
“Rimini” is a grim, occasionally funny examination of Richie, with a cringingly committed performance by Thomas, who looks a lot like the British actor Ray Winstone from “Sexy Beast.” It has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday at the UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free and seating is first come, first served.
Like a modern pop star, Richie has built multiple revenue streams around his career. In addition to crooning awful pop songs for his dwindling fan base, Richie occasionally rents out his house to them, a tawdry shrine full of posters and life-sized cutouts of a younger Richie. He even makes a little money on the side as a male gigolo for his most ardent female fans. (I guess this is Richie’s idea of a VIP Gold Circle package?)
Even though he cuts a ridiculous figure, Richie works hard to maintain the illusion for himself and his fans that they’re all still young and in love, and time hasn’t passed them by. It’s all an act, but one gets the sense Richie doesn’t know how to exist as anything other than his public persona.
One night after a show, Richie hits on a younger woman in the crowd, which is extra icky when it is revealed that this is Richie’s estranged daughter, Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher). Richie abandoned his family when Tessa was a child, and she’s simmering with anger, demanding that her father make up for her financially what he took away from her emotionally.
Tessa’s vengeful presence knocks Richie off-stride, and forces him to reckon with his self-centered lifestyle. While it’s satisfying to watch this pathetic character get his comeuppance, the guilt he feels reawakens a glimmer of humanity in him.
Seidl occasionally include scenes of Richie’s elderly father (Hans-Michael Rehberg), a former Nazi who suffers from dementia, singing songs about the Fatherland to himself in his shabby nursing home.
It took me a while to understand why these moments with the father are in the film, but I think Seidl is drawing a connection between father and son, two men deluding themselves with faded memories of past glory. Tessa’s righteous fury pulls Richie back into the reality of the present, giving him a chance of redeeming himself.