American: The Bill Hicks Story, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, 101 mins (15)<br/>Vincere, Marco Bellocchio, 121 mins (15)<br/>Eyes Wide Open, Haim Tabakman, 91 mins (12A)

Bill Hicks is revered as a great stand-up, but this biopic doesn't tell us why
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The Independent Culture

At the moment it seems to be compulsory for every comic over the age of 30 to write an autobiography, just in time for Christmas. One life story that really would have been worth reading is that of Bill Hicks, the rabble-rousing Texan who's become a posthumous fixture on most "Best Stand-up Comic Ever" lists.

Born into a Southern Baptist family in the picket-fenced suburbs of Houston, he performed in his first comedy club when he was a clean-cut 15-year-old inspired by Woody Allen. He acquired an early taste for magic mushrooms, but didn't try alcohol till his twenties, whereupon he made up for lost time, soon becoming as well known for his drunken rants as for his social commentary.

There were confidence-sapping attempts to break Los Angeles and New York; there was sobriety and semi-sobriety; there was weight gain and weight loss, and an array of ill-advised hairstyles. And, in among all these, there were blistering critiques of the first President Bush's foreign policy. In the early 1990s, when homegrown political comedy was on the wane in Britain, UK audiences adored Hicks's anti-war tirades, as well as his rock'n'roll cockiness, and he sold out theatres all over the country. But when he returned to the United States he was back to driving hundreds of miles to perform in half-empty Midwestern clubs once again. In 1994, a few months after being censored by The David Letterman Show, he died of pancreatic cancer, aged 32.

We won't be getting Hicks's autobiography, then. What we have instead is American: The Bill Hicks Story, a British documentary directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas. It's narrated with tremendous fondness by 10 of Hicks's closest friends and relatives, and it boasts a towering archive of artfully assembled live footage and digitally animated photos – but it's still an outsider's view. Unlike that chimerical autobiography, it never gets to the bottom of what made Hicks tick, or even what made his comedy unique.

The clips of his act aren't as gut busting as you might hope for, either. Some of them leave you in no doubt of Hicks's penetrating wit and his take-no-prisoners swagger, but just as often you notice his lackadaisical pacing, the self-indulgence of his acid-addled philosophising, and the ugly condescension that undermines his avowed message of love and understanding. I wouldn't want to put anyone off Hicks's live CDs and DVDs, but the many assurances of his peerless brilliance we hear in American ... aren't borne out by the film.

Another unusual biopic, Vincere, brings to light the romance between Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a hushed-up episode that occurred when Benito was a socialist firebrand with a moustache, a full head of hair, and a surprising resemblance to Peter Serafinowicz (see above). Dalser bears his son, and sells everything to fund his revolutionary newspaper. But after Mussolini returns from the First World War, he won't have anything to do with either her or Benito Jr. And there I was thinking that he was so nice.

The film begins as a confused, overwrought but engaging Coco Before Chanel-like re-creation of a historical figure's formative years. But it loses its urgency once Il Duce fades out of the narrative. It may be sad to see Dalser struggling in vain to get back into his life, and her plight symbolises the ways in which fascism crushed the truth with the collusion of the Catholic Church (in this case, the nuns who keep her locked up). But compared to what else was going on in Italy, it isn't much more than a footnote concerning a funda-mentally unsympathetic woman. The 70-year-old writer-director accentuates his heroine's vulnerability by getting the beautiful Mezzogiorno to strip off whenever possible (at least, I assume that was his reasoning), but Vincere remains the story of a woman who worships a fascist dictator, and deludes herself that he loves her, however badly she's treated.

Eyes Wide Open is a quiet, humane drama set in an ultra-orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood. After the death of his father, the devout Aaron (Zohar Strauss, who also co-stars in this week's Lebanon, reviewed right) takes over the family butcher's shop and employs a young assistant, Ezri (Ran Danker). When their mutual attraction becomes impossible for them to ignore, Aaron welcomes this God-given opportunity to resist temptation – only to find that he can't. Before long, he's neglecting his patient wife and their four children, and being threatened by some self-appointed enforcers who, in their black suits and hats, look all too much like mafiosi. Brokeback Mount Sinai, anyone?

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber sees Prince of Persia, Disney's attempt to launch a swashbuckling franchise in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean

Also Showing: 16/05/2010

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (126 mins, PG)

Restored print of Albert Lewin's long-unavailable Technicolor melodrama. Made in 1950, it's set 20 years earlier in a Spanish coastal town that's home to a group of Fitzgerald-esque expats. Ava Gardner, right, is the lounge singer who drives men to madness and murder. James Mason is the stranger who sails into her life on a yacht with no crew. Bullfights, fortune tellers, the land-speed record, a flashback to the 17th century, and John Laurie as a mechanic called Angus – it's got the lot.

Petropolis (43 mins)

Petropolis may have the trippy, hypnotic ambience of 1960s sci-fi, but it's actually a Greenpeace documentary which flies us over the Alberta tar sands, a vast tract of Canadian forest that's been turned by the oil industry into an alien desert. You can feel the planet heating up as you watch.

Triomf (123 mins, 15)

Repulsive South African tragicomedy about a sleazy, incestuous white trash family that's stewing in a Johannesburg slum suburb on the eve of the 1994 elections.