It’s purely coincidence that over the last couple of weeks I’ve been entertained by Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman and now Sophia Loren. It’s also been a great pleasure. Marriage Italian Style is partly a follow-up to Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Italy 1963) in that it stars Sophia Loren opposite Marcello Mastroianni. Like its predecessor it sold well overseas and received Oscar nominations. I note that though this was a Carlo Ponti production featuring his partner Sophia Loren, the Executive Producer was Joseph E. Levine, the American showman who did a great deal to introduce Italian popular cinema (and particularly Sophia Loren) to the UK and North America in the 1960s.
De Sica’s film is an adaptation of a Neapolitan play by the prolific actor/writer/director Eduardo De Filippo who made his own film adaptation in 1951 and it has also featured in other versions. The De Sica adaptation is the best known outside Italy. The plot is straightforward. During the the bombing of Naples prior to the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944, a wealthy local businessman, Domenico (Mastroianni) meets a terrified young woman Filumena (Loren). She will survive by becoming a prostitute for the next few years and Domenico will meet her again and decide to keep the contact going, eventually installing her in an apartment and finding her a job. Their secret relationship escalates further up to the point where he installs her in his own house, ostensibly as a maid/carer for his aged mother. He refuses to commit to marriage or to make the relationship public. The relationship lasts for 25 years in secret before Filumena hatches a plot to force a marriage. De Sica structures the narrative so that it starts at the point where Filumena launches her plan and then flashes back to 1944 and outlines the history. We then see what Filumena’s action provokes and this leads into the final act.
In one sense this is a similar narrative to the Naples episode (‘Yesterday’) from the previous film from De Sica with Loren and Mastroianni, but it is much more challenging for the pair since they must age over 25 years. Loren was around 30 when she made the film and Mastroianni was 10 years older. Loren’s are the more obvious changes. At first, although I enjoyed the performances I wasn’t particularly entertained by the story and I struggled with the sexism – Domenico’s shocking treatment of his lover and the misogyny expressed towards Filumena. This is an integral part of of the narrative even though it is apparent to everyone that she is strong and capable and he is a weak but devious man. But as the narrative developed, I did warm to the characters including the housekeeper Rosalia (Tecla Scarano) and the chauffeur Alfredo (Aldo Puglisi) who become Filumena’s principal supporters. There are also certain scenes where De Sica seems to draw on his neorealist experiences in his presentation of Neapolitan street scenes and the changing landscapes of the city. I was particularly taken by a later scene in which Filumena has moved to a new block of flats built on a hill. When Domenico sees her from the road as she begins to descend a path, he rushes, panting, up the path to meet her. I suddenly felt that De Sica was saying something optimistic about their relationship and expressing it through his use of location. I was strangely reminded of some of Antonioni’s films and his use of cityscapes.
The two leads were at their peak around this time. Marcello Mastrioanni looks perpetually worried or helpless when he is not attempting to look decisive. Sophia Loren is simply magnificent. The film is currently part of MUBI UK’s ‘Library’ offer. I think the print is sourced from Cult Films and a notice before the film start discusses dubbing, However the MUBI presentation is a film in Italian with English subtitles.
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. 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 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 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.