Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Rating (out of five): **** 1/2
Kino's new box set, the Great Italian Directors Collection, is far from comprehensive. There's no Rossellini, for one thing, nor any kind of nod to the great, second-tier genre directors like Mario Bava or Sergio Leone. But it is a nice showcase for three of Kino's new releases, and a very cool set nonetheless.
The high point is definitely the restored version of Michelangelo Antonioni's feature debut Story of a Love Affair (1950) (a.k.a. Cronaca di un amore). Antonoini had just finished with a series of short documentaries, and his surprising debut showed his style almost fully-formed. In a way, it prefigures Antonioni's masterpiece L'Avventura (1960), but it also owes a debt to films noir and crime films like Visconti's Ossessione (1943).
The story involves Paola (Lucia Bosé), the beautiful young wife of a wealthy factory owner, Enrico (Ferdinando Sarmi). Enrico hires a detective to investigate her past, and she comes back into contact with a former lover, Guido (Massimo Girotti). Their old spark reignited, the couple tries to figure out how to meet while under the prying eyes of their significant others. Soon the idea of violence begins to come into play, but at the same time, the lovers find their passion waning.
As with L'Avventura, the supposed searching and plotting doesn't really matter as much as the feeling of isolation, ennui, and disconnect. The director has already learned how to place his lonely figures in forlorn, empty and industrial landscapes, pulling them apart and making them feel lifeless. But Story of a Love Affair existed long before what some 1960s hecklers began to call "Antoniennui", and the film has its moments of crackling passion and secret suspense. It's an amazing film, and one of the great feature debuts in movie history.
This movie comes in a two-disc set, featuring two documentaries about the movie, as well as a featurette about its restoration. Sadly, it is only available in this DVD set, not separately, and not on Blu-Ray.
For us culturally dim Americans, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was an Italian poet and author, best known for The Decameron, and for his realism, as well as depictions of bawdy humor and sex. In 1962, four of the top Italian directors decided to make a tribute to him, and the result was Boccaccio '70; the "70" was added presumably because the movie was supposed to be eight years ahead of its time.
First up is Mario Monicelli, the director of Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), and arguably the least known of the four. When the total length of the movie came in at three hours and 24 minutes, the distributors balked and snipped out Monicelli's episode. Kino's new DVD and Blu-Ray restores it for American audiences. That's great news because it's one of the best. It concerns a young couple -- Luciana (Marisa Solinas) and Renzo (Germano Gilioli) -- who marry in secret and must hide their relationship from their employers. (Things get a bit more complicated when it looks as if Luciana may be pregnant.)
Most of the situation concerns the fact that the couple is forced to live with Luciana's huge family and can never get a moment of privacy. (Even with two incomes, they can't afford much else.) Meanwhile, Luciana's slimy boss has taken a liking to her. Monicelli could have played all this as big and bawdy, but instead he takes a bittersweet route, settling on a strangely satisfying ending that's both lovely and symptomatic of modern life. Some of his images, such as hundreds of men in bathing suits crowded around a pool, are likewise strikingly beautiful and simultaneously disturbing.
Federico Fellini comes in next, and it's odd that the great director, in-between his masterpieces La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963) could come up with something this vapid. Peppino de Filippo stars in an over-the-top performance as a puritanical busybody Dr. Antonio Mazzuola, who spends his time trying to get "smut" removed from public places. He meets his match when a giant billboard is erected outside his home; it features the glorious Anita Ekberg selling milk (get it)? Antonio rages and rages and eventually the giant Anita comes to life and torments him. It's somewhat thrilling to see the massive, buxom Ekberg stomping around -- and the cheesy visual effects used to achieve this -- but overall the tale is heavy and obvious.
Luchino Visconti's episode is decidedly more subtle, but also very dry and airless. The entire thing takes place in the opulent wing of a ritzy house, where trophy wife Pupe (Romy Schneider) has discovered that her husband Conte Ottavio (Tomas Milian) has slept with a number of call girls; the story is in every paper in town. Pupe decides to get a job, and they argue and talk for the entire episode. Pupe bathes and dresses, preparing to go out on the town, and it seems as if something is finally going to happen, but both characters decide to stay home and argue some more. (Even the servants are disappointed.) Eventually Conte sees how beautiful his wife is, which leads to a dreadfully ironic ending. It's like one of those plays that just leave you feeling drained and tarnished.
Then Vittorio de Sica steps in and saves the day with one of his many Sophia Loren movies; as gorgeous as Loren is, it's hard to argue that she ever looked better than she does in this movie. She plays Zoe, a beauty that helps run a shooting gallery in a traveling carnival. But her real job comes at night: she becomes the prize in an auction, and her sexual favors go to the lucky winning man. (No red-blooded man would pass up a chance.) Most of the episode consists of feisty Zoe shooing away leering males, come to check out the "merchandise." The men also join together, and begin a war of bids for the winning ticket. Meanwhile, Zoe has fallen for a local boy with a motorcycle and would rather spend the evening with him.
Some of de Sica's movies could be too long or too heavy, and this one feels just about right; even the potentially sexist subject matter is easily diffused by Loren's power and control. (Just wait until you see her sing and dance the "money, money, money" song. She will win your heart.)
Lastly, we get Monicelli's Casanova '70 (1965), a lightweight sex comedy with a single joke: army officer Andrea (Marcello Mastroianni) can only get aroused if he's in some kind of mortal danger. The movie mostly takes place in flashback, with Andrea re-counting his stories of sexual conquests (and failures). The movie is sexy, but not as over-the-top as it sounds. Monicelli allows plenty of time for deadpan setups and payoffs, and Mastroianni is hilariously perfect, finding a balance between charm and buffoonery. Bonus features include a trailer and a stills gallery.
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