There is a story behind my interest in this film. I went to see it in my local ABC cinema almost exactly 50 years ago on its initial UK release in 1964. I remember queuing up as a 15 year-old with my 13 year-old girlfriend. We just managed to get two seats on the front row of a cinema with over 1700 seats. The film had an ‘X’ Certificate (which at that time supposedly barred under 16s). It was dubbed into English, but even so, the possibility of such an enormous audience (it was probably a Saturday night) is an indication of the potential for dubbed European films in the period. (The film was distributed in the UK via Paramount.) The big attraction (certainly for me) was Sophia Loren. I probably then knew the director Vittoria De Sica as an actor in The Four Just Men TV series. I remembered two of the three episodes in this portmanteau film – but only as outline ideas and one or two images of the sublime Ms Loren.
The film’s title refers to the three stories associated with the South (Naples), the North (Milan) and the capital, Rome. Each story features La Loren with Marcello Mastroianni as different characters. In the first Loren is Adelina, a Neapolitan cigarette-seller in 1954 relying on contraband supplies and facing a prison sentence – unless she is pregnant or nursing an infant. Mastroianni is eventually exhausted by the effort to look after the children and impregnating his wife pregnant. She seems to thrive. In Milan Loren is Anna the bored wife of an industrialist who plays with Mastroianni as a trophy ‘artistic’ lover and in Rome she is Mara, a high-class call girl teasing both a weak Mastroianni and the young seminarian next door.
In truth this is a strange trio of stories. The first and the last are broad comedies in which Loren is the strong woman for whom sexual attractiveness is an asset that helps her achieve what she wants and Mastroianni is a weak man and the butt of many of the jokes. The Milan story, from a novella by the well-known Italian writer Alberto Moravia, is much more like a modernist tale with no real narrative. It is by far the shortest of the three and the least entertaining. Having said that, the image of an elegant and coiffured Sophia Loren in a Rolls-Royce, stayed with me from the first viewing. The concept of a portmanteau film in which each episode is directed by the same filmmaker is relatively unusual. Such films with a different director for perhaps four or more separate stories were quite common in this period and usually focused on a single location or theme. The only other ‘single-authored’ compendium which springs to mind is The Yellow Rolls-Royce (dir. Anthony Asquith, UK 1965) with three stories using the same vehicle at different times and with different (star) actors. So, how does De Sica’s selection come together? In some ways the three films are representative of De Sica’s career in films. He began as an actor in the popular melodramas of the 1930s, gained international recognition in the late 1940s with his neo-realist melodramas as a director and went on in the 1950s to move back towards the popular mainstream. ‘Adelina’ could certainly be a neo-realist film given it’s setting and single plot issue (based on a genuine Neapolitan regulation). Ironically, Cesare Zavattini, De Sica’s writing collaborator in the neo-realist period had a hand in the scripts for the second and third stories, but not the first.
There seems to be a problem with the title and the ordering of the three stories. ‘Adelina’ in Naples represents the past. So much is clear. But ‘Anna’ in Milan is surely the future or at least the ‘modern’? Mara in Rome seems very stuck in traditional Roman society. Whereas the first two stories also have some kind of social satire/commentary (on birth control and contemporary marriage and morality) the third story seems very light. Perhaps, after all, the film was just intended to serve the twin purposes of producer Carlo Ponti – to offer a high profile role to his partner Ms Loren (there were problems with the legality of their marriage) and to create an international hit. Loren had already starred in the Two Women (1961) and the ‘epic’ El Cid (1962) and when her three performances in Ieri, oggi, domani helped the film to (rather surprisingly) win the Best Foreign Language film Oscar, Ponti’s plans seemed to have come to fruition. The following year of course saw the Italian release of A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari) and the beginning of a new form of Italian film export. Carlo Ponti would, however, continue to find success with major productions.
The Eureka R2 DVD that I watched does not offer the dubbed version (which I would like to have watched for comparison). It offers a perfectly good Italian print with English subtitles. I read one American review which suggested that the sex appeal of Sophia Loren is used as a ‘tease’ (literally a striptease in the third story) and that the film resembles the Doris Day comedies popular in the US at the time. I can see that’s an interesting comment but I’m not sure I agree. It would take some time to watch a couple of examples and work through a comparison. I like Doris Day as a performer but not necessarily in those comedies. Sophia Loren is really in a category of her own.
This popular classic film has been released in a digital format. Presumably this is partly to take advantage of the Xmas season. On its initial release in the UK in 1990 the film was voted the favourite in a poll of The Guardian readers. I have looked at several reviews but not one of them mentioned that there is actually a Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso: The Special Edition) which was released in the UK in 1994. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian commented on the re-release that he was “the reviewer who confessed to finding Cinema Paradiso a bit sugary and the kid [Salvatore as a child – Salvatore Cascio] a bit annoying.” Mr Bradshaw has not, apparently, seen the Special Edition.
This version extends the film from 123 minutes to 175 minutes. It also transforms the film from a somewhat sentimental drama to a complex, if more downbeat, exploration of Italian culture and cinema. Famously the film presents numerous extracts from Italian, European and Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s screened at the Paradiso. These remain in the longer version but the addition of nearly an hour presents a major ellipsis, almost all from the third segment of the film.
Essentially the opening introduces us to the adult Salvatore (Jacques Perrin). The largest segment of the film is an extended flashback to when he was at first a viewer then a projectionist at the cinema. In the final epilogue he returns to his home island of Sicily to attend the funeral of his mentor Alfredo (Phillippe Noiret).
The film is a romance, first of cinema, but also of Salvatore’s passion for a young woman Elena (Agnese Nano). The full-length epilogue brings unexpected information and resonance to the romance. A keen-eyed friend of mine had spotted the clue that remains in the earlier truncated version; a brief glimpse of Brigitte Fossey in the montage of brief scenes that accompanies the end credits. The addition of her character to the story brings a whole biter-sweet amplification to the tale. It also becomes clear that the long version is the full version of the story as originally conceived by the writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore.
The filling out of the story also adds complexity to many aspects of the film: notably the use of film extracts, especially clips from well-known Neo-realist and post-Neo-realist art films made in Italy. The motifs are both visual and aural: a student once offered me a very fine essay that traced the sound and musical motifs across the film.
The other famous aspect of this well-loved film is a final montage of film extracts compiled by Alfredo before his death. These too take on added resonance in the longer version. The originally released shorter version is a fine and moving film. The longer version seems to me one of the masterworks of Italian cinema, which takes on greater complexity with every viewing. A couple of years ago the same friend checked and their was a single 35mm copy of the The Special Edition available in the UK. If this is still on offer perhaps some imaginative exhibitor could screen the film in its original release format. I am sure Peter Bradshaw, and many other film lovers, would find the three hours immensely rewarding.
During the first half of this film (that I knew had been a Cannes success earlier this year) I did wonder what I was going to get out of it – apart from a terrific soundtrack, production design and camerawork. At the end I was genuinely surprised that 140 minutes had passed. As I began to read about it I realised that I had taken in much more than I had been conscious of at the time. This is certainly highly intelligent and literate cinema focusing on a world I’ve never experienced, though as I’m roughly the same age as the central character I can understand his reactions to events whether they are dramatic, mundane or surreal. I’m still not sure whether I ‘enjoyed’ the film, but I was certainly engrossed by it.
This is the fifth film written and directed by the Neapolitan Paulo Sorrentino since 2001’s One Man Up. The two most successful and best known in the UK are The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008). The central character Jep Gambardella is played by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo. Jep is a flâneur, a journalist who once wrote an acclaimed novel as a young man but who is now at 65 primarily a socialite who knows all the leading figures of Rome’s high society. As many commentators have suggested, The Great Beauty appears at first glance to draw on Fellini’s La dolce vita from 1960, especially given its mixture of parties and social events attended by the glitterati and religious leaders of Rome and located in beautiful gardens, palaces etc (as well as Jep’s own apartment by the Coliseum). But in the earlier film Marcello Mastroianni is a journalist in his thirties and Rome is a rejuvenated city enjoying the economic boom in post-war Italy. By contrast, Jep is 65 and his Rome appears defeated (if still beautiful, at least in its classical buildings). The Great Beauty is a film about death and regret – but it does end on a note that is both melancholy and potentially positive.
The Great Beauty is so stylish with its impeccable CinemaScope compositions and crane shots and its almost operatic use of music and staging that its layered narrative and snappy dialogue are easily lost in an aesthetic swoon. There is a distinct sense of loss and waste – quite literally in the characters who disappear. The film is so stuffed with literary references that without a great deal of background it isn’t possible to read the narrative fully. The film begins with what I think are the opening lines of Journey to the End of Night (1932) by Céline – a novel I don’t know and had to look up. Jep constantly refers to Flaubert and the concept of nothingness. As far as I can work out this nothingness is a condition both of his own life and of Rome itself. I recommend the article by Pasquale Iannone in Sight & Sound, October 2013 as helpful in trying to make sense of the film. Like Iannone, I was struck by several scenes which seemed indebted to Buñuel. Iannone refers to the animals in surreal settings but I also thought of the haute bourgeoisie ‘trapped’ in social situations at dinner, at parties etc. In the press notes Sorrentino discusses his collaboration with screenwriter Umberto Contarello and how he views Rome still as a superior kind of tourist attraction, even though he has made it his home. This idea is enunciated in Jep’s voiceover. Rome is indeed a city ‘eternal’ in its attractions and mysteries, seductive yet ‘empty’. Sorrentino tells us that the film is in effect a paean to classical Italian cinema, its directors, stars and films. I don’t think I know that cinema well enough to comment but I did think, during the latter stages of the film, about an Italian director who was actually born in Rome (unlike Sorrentino or Fellini and Pasolini, both discussed by Sorrentino). Oddly, Roberto Rossellini’s Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960), although a completely different kind of film, does share some ingredients including the fading aristocracy and the power plays of the church.
I can appreciate that The Great Beauty would probably repay a second or even a third viewing. It also features a soundtrack that deserves further attention. The film seems to be doing reasonable business in the UK (nearly £500,000 after ten days). Perhaps the stir at Cannes in May has helped. Given the splendour of its sound and images I suspect that the Blu-ray may do well.
(I wrote the first part of this post in October 2012 but didn’t publish it. Now that BBC4 are showing The Young Montalbano, it seems a good idea to post on both together.)
Inspector Montalbano is one of global television’s delights. In the UK these feature-length TV films have been dropped into the schedule for BBC4 almost as filler between the much more heavily-promoted Scandinavian crime fiction series. There is the impression that schedulers, critics and some audiences view the films as light summer relief before the return of ‘Nordic noir’ for the winter. I can understand this reaction but it shouldn’t prevent a proper appreciation of a rather different kind of crime fiction.
Inspector Salvatore Montalbano (‘Salvo’) is a creation of the Italian crime writer Andrea Camilleri and the character’s name is partly a reference to the Spanish crime writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, whose police investigator had a similar passion for good food. (Salvo has also been seen as partly based on Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.) The focus on gastronomy in the Italian series is part of an overall approach which includes a comedy element and a visual style that shows the Sicilian townscapes and landscapes to their best advantage.
There are now 22 crime novels in the series and around 26 TV films (including several ‘telescripts only’ as sources, so there should be more adaptations to come). Recently broadcast episodes in the UK are around 110 minutes in length and the series has been made in a leisurely fashion so that the Italian producers (the public service broadcaster RAI plus the Swedish PSB Sveriges Television – SVT) have made roughly two per year since 1999. Each film begins with an aerial sequence showing the Sicilian location – an attractive coastal town with a harbour. This is reminiscent of the openings of US TV series like CSI, except it’s much sunnier. The sunny aspect is contrasted to some extent with the dark, orchestral score with its Hitchcockian undertones – as well as what I take to be some elements of Arab music, since the Moorish influence on Sicily was strong. Salvo has a house virtually on the beach and he often swims in the sea or gazes from his veranda. The beach has also served as the location of various crimes – in recent episodes Salvo has found a dead horse, a corpse in the water and watched a seagull die and fall to the sand a few feet away. Salvo has a housekeeper, who cooks him delicious meals (he also has a favourite restaurant where he dines seemingly every working day). His long-term girlfriend, Livia, is based in Northern Italy and she visits him occasionally, flying in from Genoa. Salvo lives well – he’s nothing like Wallander or the harassed Danish investigators. Beautiful women crop up in most episodes. They are charmed by Salvo but they also turn the tables on him. As well as Livia he also has a locally-based female friend who appears in several episodes.
According to Wikipedia, the fictitious town of ‘Vigata’ is created from locations in the inland city of Ragusa and the coastal towns of Punta Secca and Licata. In the novels it is the author’s own town of Porto Empedocle with Agrigento acting as the district headquarters of ‘Montelusa’. The stories are set very precisely in this area of Southern Sicily and the locations are not just backgrounds but esssential for the representation of local culture – but also the kinds of criminal activity that might happen here (such as the people smuggling). The locations also act as a form of ‘eye-candy’, competing with Salvo’s food and his very beautiful female companions. One of the possible reasons why the series is dismissed is the way in which comedy works in the series. Catarella, the policeman with a form of ‘name dyslexia’, is very broad as a comic character. The writing is sympathetic towards this character and in more than one episode his ridiculous behaviour is revealed to mask a set of observational skills – and a network of personal contacts. Perhaps more significantly, Salvo is a sophisticated man who tolerates most of his colleagues and the local officials with whom he works. He only has two completely reliable colleagues. One is his ‘go to’ detective Fazio and the other is a local journalist. The others are fair game for his wit, especially the local lothario and Salvo’s second-in-command, Mimì. Salvo’s approach is a little ‘war-weary’ as he deals with his superiors located in Montelusa, the local Mafia families or the church authorities. Within Vigata itself, Salvo is clearly in charge.
The unusual mixture of elements in the series is seen most clearly in the handling of violent/complex action sequences. These seem to me to be handled in a deliberately inept and unrealistic manner, comical in their clumsiness and the way in which Salvo is put into danger. It’s almost as if the writers and directors are bored with the idea of having to show a fight and would much rather get back to the chat, the food and the beautiful women. However, at the same time the stories are serious and intelligent, especially in the characterisation of the criminals and their victims, many of whom in a small community are known to Salvo or to one of his men or to his friends and acquaintances. The themes of the stories delve into the lives of contemporary Sicilians and there is also a specific interest in stories that have a historical basis accessible via elderly characters and/or through the travels of Sicilians returning from abroad. This historical perspective is something I’ve noticed in Italian crime fiction more generally.
The success of the series both in Italy and overseas has prompted a ‘prequel’ series of The Young Montalbano. This is a trait recognisable from other long-running series (as are the walking tours around ‘Montalbano’s Sicily’) with the UK’s ‘Young Morse’ series, Endeavour, a good recent example. The Young Montalbano sets itself a significant problem in ‘realist’ terms because it goes back to only 1990 and presents us with a young Inspector moving to Vigata for his first job as ‘Commissario’ in complete charge of a local police station. Michele Riondino has the task of representing the character played by Luca Zingaretti as he might have been twenty years earlier – but because the original series has run for 13 years, Zingaretti’s Salvo first appeared in 1999. Perhaps wisely, the producers have gone for an actor who appears physically different, but who manages to capture the persona very well. The first three of six episodes in the first series of the prequel reveal that Salvo had known Vigata from his childhood. He is shown as very formal with his colleagues, quickly recognising Fazio senior’s qualities (his son appears in episode 2) and welcoming Catarella with all his faults. We are also introduced to Livia and witness the first meeting of Salvo and Mimi.
I’m looking forward to the remaining three episodes. I can’t quite put my finger on why the various elements fit together so well. It must be the case that a prequel attracts and repels viewers familiar with the original series in equal measure. The impact is greater because we think we know the characters and then either we appreciate knowing more or we object if we don’t think that the earlier incarnations are believable. Andrea Camilleri was involved in writing all six episodes and he has clearly thought about his characters. In episode 3, Salvo and Mimi both behave badly at times, as young men do and this is the focus for comedy. The humour in the series works to ‘humanise’ the characters rather than making the series lightweight. I feel that the subtle blend of comedy and drama produces intelligent entertainment. As Autumn beckons, I appreciate the chance to visit this corner of Sicily.