Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Italian Film Bonanza: Boccaccio 70 and Divorce Italian Style

Boccaccio '70 is, confusingly, a 1962 omnibus film that has, as a sort of loose inspiration, the question, What kind of tale would Boccaccio tell in 1970? Some of the directors (esp. De Sica) took that as permission to be bawdy. Check out that poster--four male directors looking up at four actresses. Who's really calling the shots?, it seems to ask. The project was an opportunity to showcase four great Italian directors, but, because of length, the least "sexy" segment was originally dropped for American distribution. Now a new dvd restores the complete original for the American audience. Each segment nears an hour, so it's best spread out over more than one night.

First up is "Renzo and Luciana" by Monicelli, the segment cut from American screens. Then, he apparently wasn't an esteemed director, but his body of work, including Big Deal on Madonna Street, has grown in stature. The story concerns a young, newlywed couple trying to find privacy, sneaking off to get married. NYTimes critic Dave Kehr suggests that the look of the film may have partly inspired Jacques Tati's incredible Playtime, and you can see why--it wonderfully captures the way modern urban life, esp. as expressed in architecture, can impersonalize experience. Though it looks great, the story's a bit dull.

"The Temptation of Dr. Antonio" by Fellini follows, and though it's not a complete success, it's my favorite of the bunch. Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita) plays a giant-size model from a billboard who comes to life and, like the Fifty Foot Woman, dwarfs men and buildings. Dr. Antonio is a religious censor, fighting an uphill battle against the sexualization of modern (commercial) culture. Ekberg personifies his worst nightmare (a sexed-up ad for, of all things, milk, that most wholesome of drinks) and yet, of course, she tantalizes him. The whole film plays out like a carnival number more than a narrative, with boy scouts and nuns and construction workers and African American jazz musicians all on parade, accompanied by excellent, memorable music by Nino Rota that's like a hellish jingle swelled into a concerto for organ grinder and orchestra. The lack of plotting made me drowsy during a late night viewing, but the piece stayed with me, and on second viewing improved. It may not quite work, but what it's saying, and its stylishness in saying it, combine to save it.

The most impressive acting in the project by far comes from Romy Schneider in "The Job" by Visconti. The setup is tedious, but once you get to the real story, which is basically a conversation between a rich young Italian who's been caught philandering by the tabloids and his beautiful German wife. It soon becomes clear that she's pretty much caught between two rich men, her husband and her father, and the conversation becomes more of a seduction and a negotiation. In the final minutes of the film, Scheider conveys a rich ambiguity of emotions, from jealousy to seductiveness to triumph and debasement. A poignant character study.

"The Raffle" by De Sica. The most watchable of the four films, in many ways, quite offensive. Sophia Loren plays, well, a big-breasted woman who reluctantly raffles herself off for a night once in a while when her family needs the money, and the camera places her next to balloons and melons a lot. The locals are a bunch of crude idiots, and the humor and pathos is supposed to come from the unlikely winner, a bald, skinny old bachelor with a high voice whose mother, one of those little, Old World women in a black shawl, proudly covers him in talcum powder for his big night out (in the film's only really good moment). Don't bother.

"Renzo and Luciana": Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.
"The Temptation of Dr. Antonio": Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.
"The Job": Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.
"The Raffle": Rating: 1 out of 4 stars.

I also recently watched Divorce Italian Style, starring Marcello Mastroianni, a dark comedy about a decadent aristocrat who wants to off his wife so he can be with the young girl he's in love with--and it's quite an elaborate murder plot. First, he must tempt her into an affair so he can discover them and have an excuse for the murder! The story reminded me a bit of Lolita, in which Humbert marries (then plans to murder) Lolita's mother in order to attain his love. It was perhaps a little too dark, or a little too dry, or maybe just a little too drawn out for my taste, but it's a strong film. The story portrays communal pride and a patriarchal sense of 'honor' that is cynically exploited to justify a lot of bad behavior. The film clearly seems to be making a case for modernized divorce laws in a humorous way (esp. in the final image, when Angela, finally clutched in Ferdinando's arms, surreptiously plays footsie with a sailor a few feet away). But my favorite sequence involves the scandal created when La Dolce Vita plays at the local cinema. Wow, considering this sequence and the "The Temptation of Dr. Antonio" episode of Boccaccio 70, I gather that La Dolce Vita (such a great film) stirred quite a controversy in its day!

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Speaking of Italian film, I read an interesting passage about one of my favorite Italian films earlier this summer in a New York Times article:
There's not, after all, any either/or choice between books and movies. Ideally they complement each other as perfectly as Giuseppe di Lampedusa's extraordinary novel The Leopard and Luchino Visconti's sumptuous 1963 screen version. In both, it's easy to sink into the 19th-century tale of a fading aristocracy at the moment of Italian unification. It's Gone With the Wind, with Garibaldi's redshirts instead of Yankees or Confederates. Burt Lancaster is magnificent as the prince who sees his way of life disappearing, but even the elegant three-hour movie can't capture all the twists and depths of character that Lampedusa put into the novel.

-Caryn James, "When the Film Outshines the Novel," July 8, 2005

Song: "Bevete Piu Latte" (Drink More Milk) by Nino Rota, from "The Temptation of Dr. Antonio" episode of Boccaccio 70



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