I wanted to bring attention to some cool Italian flicks I’ve watched recently even though I didn’t have enough to say about them to warrant their own individual blog entries. I recommend checking out everything here but I’m going to list them in order of my least favorite to most.
Io La Conoscevo Bene (1965) I Knew Her Well
This film was directed by Antonio Pietrangeli, who also did The Girl From Parma, one of my favorite Catherine Spaak vehicles and arguably her best performance. This film, starring Stefania Sandrelli, isn’t as good as that but it’s alright. (I’m actually surprised it got the Criterion treatment while Parma remains very obscure and only available on out of print foreign DVDs.) I’m pretty much over the “films about the film industry” genre at this point in my life, which obviously is the plot of this movie. Either they’re insufferable propaganda for Hollywood to jerk itself off or they tell us all about the seedy underbelly of an industry that nobody particularly admires anymore anyway. Of course this movie predates the cliche, but that doesn’t alleviate my ambivalence towards it. I actually watched this two separate times and I still struggle to remember what all happened, which maybe is more of a reflection on myself but either way I don’t think this one was for me. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t especially impressed either.
I included Conoscevo on this list though because clearly my opinion is in the minority and it is regarded as a classic by many others. It’s definitely worth a watch if you can stand to see yet another film with the message that fame and fortune aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Still, the ending is very abrupt and controversial and I couldn’t find a single character that I particularly cared for. Maybe I’ll give this movie a third chance sometime, after I’ve watched the others in my queue, and if my opinion changes then I’ll update.
Il Magnifico Cornuto (1965) The Magnificent Cuckold
I collected as many Ugo Tognazzi films as I could find after seeing Crazy Desire…and then I found out he molested Catherine Spaak on the set of that movie and mostly lost interest in his filmography immediately thereafter. (I can separate the art from the artist, but I’m not gonna rush out and marathon and shitty person’s body of work either.) I decided to give this one a try though, because I’m also a big fan of his co-star, Claudia Cardinale, and the premise intrigued me. I love movies that explore the dynamics of gender relations: it’s one of my favorite themes in art.
The story involves a man named Andrea who cheats on his woman. It suddenly occurs to him that his beautiful wife could easily do the same thing to him, and he gradually grows obsessed with the idea. His guilt destroys him from the inside and chaos ensues. There are some really funny (and sexy!) dream sequences where he imagines his wife’s potential dalliances. There are some genuinely emotional moments where Andrea can’t hide his suspicions from other people, and has a public meltdown. It’s a very solid and relevant tale about all the ways in which men and women can hurt each other and themselves. I enjoyed it very much, though I felt it begin to drag by the end. I think a good 15 minutes could’ve been cut at the very least to tighten up the pacing, but I seem to be the only person who has that opinion. I’m not just saying this because he wasn’t a good guy in real life, but I wasn’t a big fan of Tognazzi’s performance either. It felt like anyone else could have done the role just as well or even better. Claudia is stunning but her character was fairly one note as well and could’ve been played by any other great beauty of the time.
Guendalina (1957) Gwendolyn
This is another film by Alberto Lattuada, who directed I Dolci Inganni which is my new all-time favorite. Inganni and Guendalina are like sister films to each other: they were both released simultaneously on French blurays, explore similar themes of female adolescent love, and you can scarcely find a review of one that doesn’t mention the other. It goes without saying Inganni is my favorite of the two just by virtue of having Catherine Spaak in it, but even ignoring that I’d say it is objectively the superior work. It deals with more mature themes, plus the story is better paced and more thought provoking. Inganni is about a young woman who wants to grow up surrounded by adults that envy her youth, and too smitten to recognize how sleazy her crush actually is. The tragedy of a naive teen who’s so blinded by infatuation that she would throw away her youthful innocence to join the embittered world of adulthood is what makes Inganni so profound to me.
Guendalina promises the same depth but never quite gets there for me. Basically the titular teenage girl falls in love (this time to a guy her own age) while her parents are on the brink of divorce. Unfortunately we get a bit too much of her (admittedly adorable) antics and not enough of the adult hardships for my taste. Guendalina is a cute kid and likeable for sure, but she lacks the wholesomeness of Francesca. She’s a lot more sassy and willing to throw her boyfriend through the hoops for her pleasure. Their scenes together are nice but it’s typical teen coming-of-age fare as opposed to Inganni which went above and beyond into something special. The adults are more of an afterthought and lacking the tragic element of their counterparts in the later film as well.
I enjoyed Guendalina but none of the scenes really stood out to me like the entire last half hour of Inganni did, where I was on the edge of my seat wondering how far they’d take it. There are a few scenes, like Guendalina dancing around in a black leotard, that just seemed kind of silly and out of place. The ending is pretty cliche and melodramatic for our heroine and her beaux, while her parents get an unearned eleventh hour reconciliation out of nowhere. It just didn’t have the same impact for me as the haunting final shot of its successor. It didn’t feel like what was going on with the parents falling out of love (until suddenly they aren’t) ever really connected to the young romance of their daughter either. I would have preferred it if Guendalina got with her guy but had to reconcile that there was no guarantee the two of them wouldn’t someday grow apart themselves. Overall it felt like Lattuada was testing the waters and working the kinks out this time around and then perfected his craft with Catherine Spaak’s debut three years later. It’s the Saboteur (1942) to Inganni‘s North by Northwest (1959).
Le Foto Proibite di una Signora per Bene (1970) The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion
This is Dagmar Lassander’s follow up project to the seminal Femina Ridens. It’s got the same lurid subject matter but with more of a giallo/mystery plot as opposed to a twisted romance. The best thing about it by far is Ennio Morricone’s fabulous soundtrack. The main theme is one of the all-time greats, deserving of far more attention stateside than it has received.
What I disliked about the film was Dagmar’s makeup. It’s godawful neon colors that’s so unflattering that it’s distracting at times. I absolutely loved her in Femina but in this she is sadly completely overshadowed by her co-star Nieves Navarro. I also wasn’t a big fan of the reveal at the end of the film. It’s worth checking out if you like ’70s Italian giallo films (which I sorta do, though not nearly as much as their neorealist dramas, screwball comedies and psychedelic eroticas of the ’60s) but if you’re looking for Lassander’s next great femme fatale role as I was you’ll be disappointed. I usually like movies that explore dom/sub dynamics as well, but I just couldn’t get much perverse enjoyment out of what happens to Dagmar’s character. She is abused and misled by just about everybody she trusts and it just felt too mean to get off to.
Despite my misgivings though, it does have its moments for sure. The cinematography is great and the colors pop. There’s some of the interesting furniture, clothing and sets that this period of Italian cinema is well known for, like the coat rack of disembodied hands. It’s well worth checking out if you like the genre. And if you don’t, it’s best to just enjoy the visual splendor and don’t worry so much about the story. This one isn’t Femina Ridens or Scacco alla Regina caliber, it’s more like A Complicated Girl or The Lickerish Quartet. Which is to say, it’s no masterpiece but still has a lot of visual artistry and thought provoking concepts to appreciate despite its shortcomings.
Il Vigile (1963) The Traffic Cop
This one’s a genuinely hilarious comedy about a lazy bum named Otello who, despite having a wife and child dependent on him, refuses to get a job. He gets no respect and other men make fun of the guy in front of his own son. Eventually he manages to squeeze the mayor for a job on the police force and enjoys throwing his weight around in turn. The humor is universal and timeless; you don’t need to understand Italian culture or then-current events to get a few hearty chuckles out of Otello’s antics. This is also 30 years before “huh-huh stupid irresponsible dad” became an overdone comedy staple.
Even beyond that, Vigile managed to get a sincere emotional reaction out of me. Without spoiling much, there comes a point when Otello’s duties as policeman require him to fine the man who got him the job, and testify in court in such a way that the mayor’s reputation would be damaged during election season. In response, the mayor threatens to expose Otello’s common law marriage and send his devoted wife back to the abusive drunk whom she’s still legally married to. This has to be one of the most terrifying fates imaginable for both of them, and I felt a jolt of secondhand terror at the thought of forcibly separating lovers like that. It’s like a modern Lucius Pinarius story, which may be the most harrowing scenario I can imagine. This movie was able to pull that gut punch out of its hat two thirds of the way into an uproarious comedy without missing a beat–very impressive.
Le Soldatesse (1965) The Camp Followers
This, and the next two films in the list, are all made by Valerio Zurlini. He had a relatively short career as director but in that time he made consistently great movies and in my opinion deserves to be listed among Welles, Hitchcock and Kubrick. The man’s an unsung genius whose trademarks are: beautiful cinematography, fantastic scripts (which he wrote himself in most cases), and great characters. (Especially the women, who are sympathetic and strong while still retaining their femininity, a balancing act most modern movies can’t seem to manage.)
I don’t have much to say about this particular entry but it’s definitely worth watching. It’s a WWII story but it focuses on such a strange and trivial mission of the war–transporting some comfort women to an officer’s lounge through hostile territory. That weird niche makes it stand out as unique against the other million films that are about this period in history, so I very much appreciated it. It adds to the “war is futile/what’s the point of this suffering” element because their mission is so trivial and even grotesque. They’re risking their lives so some officers who probably don’t even see combat can get off. Along the way there’s a lot of good character moments between the women and the soldiers who are escorting them. There’s action sequences that are both emotional and suspenseful. Overall, it’s one of the most original stories about war I’ve yet seen on the silver screen and a masterpiece worthy of any film buff’s collection. That’s really all that needs to be said.
La Ragazza con la Valigia (1961) The Girl With the Suitcase
This is one of Claudia Cardinale’s first high profile roles, and she plays a destitute young woman named Aida who’s constantly mistreated by the men in her life. They enjoy using her body but aren’t interested in real companionship. She’s forced to use her beauty to survive but it’s a very meager existence and clearly taking a toll on her mental health. At the beginning of our story, one of these men leaves her stranded after promising a career opportunity. She tries to track him down and the guy sends out his younger brother, Lorenzo (Jacques Perrin) to get rid of her. The teenage Lorenzo is enraptured by Aida’s charms and feels great sympathy for what his brother has put her through, so the two become fast friends. The young man is naive to Aida’s unsavory lifestyle however, and she’s unwilling to pursue him romantically due to their wide experience gap.
Aida has the screen time and her name in the title, but this is Lorenzo’s story. His character arc is in learning to be a real man who respects women, someone completely unlike his sexist (and classist) peers. We can see how disgusted he is by what his brother has done from the first, and he’s always protective of his new friend whenever men treat her like a piece of meat. The two have fantastic screen chemistry and their scenes together are nothing short of adorable. I think it’s every guy’s fantasy to meet a beautiful woman they can take care of, just as it’s every woman’s fantasy to meet a man who balances assertiveness with sensitivity, so in that regard it’s a very satisfying romance to watch. Claudia is a natural beauty who steals every scene, but Perrin’s boyish smile is enough to melt your heart. He’s like a dog: loyal to a fault and unconditionally loving. When he goes up to bat for this woman he barely knows time and time again, it’s enough to earn anyone’s respect. You want them to get together, but with the age gap and different status dividing the two it just isn’t possible and that’s the tragic beauty of it.
While I loved the characters and story though, I’m sorry to say that this film is not without its (relatively minor) flaws. On rewatch I found that the pacing screeched to a halt in two or three scenes, usually when the priest is on screen lecturing Aida or advising Lorenzo. Worse, I found myself disappointed by the lack of a direct confrontation between Lorenzo and his mean-spirited brother. It felt like that was what the story needed as the perfect culmination for his character arc, but it just never happens. We see him take on other men on her behalf but it felt like that definitive “rejecting the man your brother was and becoming something better” moment just wasn’t there. I feel like the heavy handed and long winded scenes with the Father ought to have been replaced with just one scene of Lorenzo chewing his brother out and proudly defending Aida to him. But overall, Ragazza is a great film by any metric and it’s impossible to watch without feeling something for the two leads.
Estate Violenta (1959) Violent Summer
This is Zurlini’s masterpiece and I’d place it high on my list of all-time favorite films. The plot is like a gender-swapped I Dolci Inganni, but it takes place about 20 years earlier–in 1943 just as the Allies are invading Fascist Italy. The conflict is not between a teen’s rose-tinted view of adulthood vs the bitter reality, it’s between love and war. This is a plotline that’s been done a million times but here it works because of the interesting dynamic between the two leads. We have Jean-Louis Trintignant (of La Matriarca and Il Sorpasso) as Carlo the young draft-dodging son of a high ranking Fascist and Eleonora Rossi Drago as Roberta, a dowdy older war widow. While age gap relationships are extremely common in Italian movies from this time, it’s rare to see one where the man is the junior partner. In many ways these two should never have been together, but the unique circumstances of the war put them on a collision course.
I thought Trintingnant did a wonderful job balancing the youthful inexperience and budding manhood of his character. When he’s alone with Roberta, you can see an innocent twinkle in his eye, like a kid with a crush on his teacher. But he’s extremely protective of her too, and putting up a front of nonchalance about the war until it begins to effect him personally. You can see that he’s pretending to be more of a man than he is for her sake, even as he puts off his adult duties like the draft in an effort to cling to juvenile frivolity. When his dad’s government collapses and Carlo loses his privileged status, you can see a lot of his put-on indifference about the world begin to collapse into fear and wounded pride. It’s a multifaceted characterization pulled off with an suitably understated performance. I’d say it’s Trintingnant’s best (that I’ve seen).
Similarly, I thought Drago absolutely knocked it out of the park. She’s clearly made to look older and “past her prime” by the makeup/wardrobe department but she has a natural beauty that shines through. Multiple times during the film, I turned to my partner and said aloud: “she is absolutely gorgeous.” You can see the delicate interplay of emotions going on in Roberta’s mind as she enjoys feeling admired again even as she grapples with the morality of pursuing an eighteen year old. The sexual chemistry she has with Trintingnant is off the charts, particularly in the famous dance/kiss sequence. There’s something about her mannerisms which naturally illicit sympathy–I found myself wanting to protect and raise her spirits the same as Carlo. At the same time, Roberta’s character is being infantilized by her own controlling mother whom she must stand up to. Her belated push for independence mirrors Carlo’s struggle to face the responsibilities he’s been running away from. This was the first I’d seen of Eleonora Drago, but I now want to check out as much of her remaining filmography as my sources permit.
The supporting cast is phenomenal too, from Jacqueline Sassard (Guendalina) as Carlo’s prior love interest trying to stand in the way to Enrico Maria Salerno’s brief but mesmerizing turn as Carlo’s fascist dad. (I told my husband as soon as his scene was over that we’d just witnessed one of the greatest supporting roles of all time, and multiple watches later I stand by that assessment.)
Like Inganni, I had absolutely no idea where this movie was going to go when I watched it for the first time, which is both a rare and welcome occurrence these days. (There are only so many tropes and stock plots out there after you’ve seen upwards of ~400 movies.) I thought the cinematography was especially fantastic–which it is in all of Zurlini’s movies, but here somehow more so. The ending was both inevitable yet surprising and I was genuinely emotionally affected by it. I cared very much about both the lead characters and found myself speculating on what the rest of their lives were like after the events of the film, which is the mark of immersive storytelling. There’s not much else to say except heaping on the usual compliments, so I would highly recommend checking this one out if you can find a copy online or otherwise. It’s one of the all-time best films that seemingly no one knows about.