The Belly of an Architect (1987) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

We agreed completely that this is a pretentious and boring film which is only for Peter Greenaway's most devoted fans. We didn't like it although we each like other Greenaway films. (Scoop: Drowning by Numbers and The Pillow Book. Tuna: The Pillow Book and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.)

Scoop's comments in white:

Ars gratia artis.

Literally, art for the sake of art.

More expansively, art which is about art.

This film is essentially a lecture on architecture, focusing especially on Rome. At various times, the dialogue and images cover every period of Roman building design from Republican Rome to the present. Occasionally, some actors walk in front of the monuments and block our view. The most dramatic eclipses are provided by Brian Dennehy, who is actually larger than many of the celebrated buildings.

Some films allow us to determine whether critics have a bullshit detector. This is such a film, and Hal Hinson of the Washington Post sniffed it out instantly:

This is a gassy, overbearing, pretentious little bit of art-in-your face, from the director of "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," and it revisits some of the filmmaker's favorite places (the men's room, for example) and favorite themes (life as consumption and elimination). Most of the film's meanings are buried inside the artist's big, intellectually high-rolling metaphors.

In between all the pretty pictures and artistic conceits, during those moments when the actors block our view, there is about five minutes worth of plot, which goes something like this:


  • Brian Dennehy - buns
  • Chloe Webb - buns and breasts
  • Stefania Casini - full frontal and rear nudity
  • Lambert Wilson - buns

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

  • no features

An American architect goes to Rome to create a tribute to an 18th century architect named Boullee. From the time he arrives, the American starts to experience many of the same problems that Boullee himself experienced throughout his life. He develops health problems, he can't seem to finish his projects, and his young wife starts fooling around with some sexy Italian dude. Then the American messes around with the Italian guy's sister, and starts to indulge in bizarre obsessions and delusions, like Xeroxing postcards and imagining that his stomach problems are a result of his wife's efforts to poison him (ala the emperor Augustus and his wife Livia). Tragedy ensues.

Yadda, yadda, yadda. Overlay typical Peter Greenaway themes. Things rotting. Perfectly symmetrical compositions. Miscast actors. Hollow sound. Lots of erudition, but no emotional connection between the audience and the characters.

Tuna's comments in yellow:

The Belly of an Architect (1987) is a joint English Italian co-production written and directed by Peter Greenaway.

The plot is straightforward enough. Brian Dennehy plays a famous architect from Chicago who travels to Italy to orchestrate a tribute to his favorite architect, a Frenchman who specialized in domes.

Dennehy becomes totally obsessed by two things in Rome, the exhibition, and his stomach.

  • Dennehy no sooner arrives in Rome than his stomach starts bothering him, and he becomes totally obsessed with bellies, ignoring his wife, and driving her to the other man. The fact that she is pregnant is a plus in the eyes of the other man, because that obviates the need for birth control. Poor Dennehy has but one victorious moment, when he sleeps with the Italian architect's sister.
  • Meanwhile, the Italian architect who controls the purse strings wants to take over the exhibition from him, and is siphoning money for a restoration that is his own pet project. The handsome Italian also seduces Dennehy's much younger wife, and eventually takes her away.

I will leave the rest of the story for you to discover, but things do not turn out well for Dennehy.

As I have mentioned in previous reviews, Greenaway makes films for himself, and doesn't much care what anyone else thinks about them. I am sure it won't bother him a bit that I didn't understand the point of it, and wish I hadn't sat through it. This film had Greenaway written all over it, with a lot of use of white and red, lots of symmetry, several scenes in a bathroom, an overbearing score and snail-like pacing. Unfortunately, it wasn't as visually stimulating or as daring as his films normally are.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. There are six graded reviews, of which five are positive. The general consensus is (1) the film's images are beautiful, interesting, and strikingly well composed and (2) Brian Dennehy gives an excellent performance. Beyond that, opinions differ sharply.

The People Vote ...

  • Domestic box office: $287,000
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even 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. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). 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. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "This is a C-. Artsy Peter Greenaway is an acquired taste to begin with, so most people should avoid this film altogether. Even if you are a Greenaway fan, as I am to some extent, you'll find this film difficult to wade through, despite the usual excellent photographic compositions. Tuna says, "Greenaway films are pretty much a genre unto themselves, and with Pillow Book and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover being his best, this is low C- territory, only for Greenaway fans."

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