Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The prolific Italian director Damiano Damiani found success in a number of genres, including a memorable horror film from a story by Carlos Fuentes, 1966's La strega in amore. This superior social issue / crime drama from 1970 is based on the real-life Franca Viola, a Sicilian teenager who defied the combined wrath of both the Mafia and her community. Viola was kidnapped and raped as a way of forcing her to consent to marriage. She held out against social pressure and death threats until the offender was convicted. Damiani's script changes the names but stays with the facts, turning the grim story into a compelling drama.
At the center of The Most Beautiful Wife is Damiani's fourteen year-old discovery Ornella Muti, who brings everything needed to the role. Pretty enough to turn heads, Muti is also an excellent actress, and convincingly expresses her character's refusal to be defeated by a barbaric custom.
Young thug Vito Juvara (Alessio Orano) swears loyalty as his Don and mentor goes to prison for a year. Instructed to keep a low profile, Vito is determined to prove himself a man in his mentor's eyes. He becomes infatuated with young peasant girl Francesca Cimarosa (Ornella Muti) and uses his mafia status to intimidate a rival suitor from the city. Francesca is pleased until she realizes that Vito's domineering and possessive attitude is no pose; he becomes abusive when he doesn't get his way and violent when Francesca refuses to show him what he calls respect -- silent acquiescence to his every whim. Deciding that Francesca is causing him to lose face, Vito kidnaps and imprisons her on a farm, where he rapes her. Local custom dictates that she's now no longer a virgin and will have little choice but to marry Vito. Francesca instead goes to the authorities. Not only does her family refuse to serve as witnesses, the police doubt that Francesca will carry through with her complaint, an outcome that Vito is counting on. But even when alone and cornered, Francesca will not give in.
With its shocking subject matter The Most Beautiful Wife could easily have been exploitative and cruel but writer/director Damiano Damiani aims higher and scores a solid hit. In contrast to The Godfather's romantic view of the Sicilian courting scene, Damiani extends the dark satire of Pietro Germi's Seduced and Abandoned into a protest against a cruel traditional custom. Vito Juvara is a murdering thug but his mafia ties afford him most of the rights of a feudal prince. Vito treats Francesca's parents like dirt and talks mainly of gifts and benefits to his bride to be, presuming that her meek approval will be automatic. Francesca searches for an indication of affection to go with the obvious economic benefit the handsome boy can bring to her family, but Vito is following the cold counsel of his Don: Find a good woman one can control, marry her and keep one's mind on business.
Like any teenager with spirit, Francesca rebels when slighted and taken for granted, choosing to walk home when a private date suddenly turns into a meeting with friends. She wants Vito to open up and share his feelings with her, and he wants her to shut up and do as he says. Francesca witnesses a mob killing and tries to back out of her commitment. Her public rejections infuriate Vito, who chooses to settle the issue the old-fashioned way.
The most impressive aspect of The Most Beautiful Wife is that the story after the rape doesn't devolve into a succession of violent action scenes. We instead see Francesca and Vito play a terrible game of domestic warfare. Vito's goal is to force the girl to his will, and all of society seems to be on his side. Cooling from his initial outrage, Francesca's father backs down at the police station for fear of losing his pitiful house to the might of Vito's friends. Francesca's little brother, the only direct witness, deserts her as well. The neighbors require little urging to support Vito's vile statement to the police: He claims that Francesca was promiscuous and is only causing trouble to force Vito to marry her. He refused after finding out that she was not a virgin.
The girl is subjected to the jeers and threats of the townspeople while her own father refuses to feed her. Vito threatens to burn her father's little granary and waits for Francesca to beg his forgiveness. An older woman who went through the same thing and was eventually discarded by her husband refuses to comfort Francesca or give her advice. Backed into a corner, Francesca decides to fight back against her oppressors, in all directions. It's a compelling story.
Film industry regulators were quick to put strong limits on Damiani's hiring of the under-aged Ornella Muti, and the lack of an on-screen rape scene elevates the film to higher plane. Young Muti is magnetically beautiful in much the same way as Brooke Shields in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby. She carries the role magnificently, especially when battling for her self-respect against heavy odds.
Curiously, Vito's brutish abuse of Francesca is also mirrored in Malle's later Lacombe, Lucien, in which a crude Gestapo collaborator uses his status to force his attentions on a young Jewish refugee right in her own home. The cruel-eyed Alessio Orano plays Vito with an almost constant murderous look on his face. He later made an excellent possible demon in Mario Bava's creepy Lisa and the Devil.
Tano Cimarosa is excellent as Francesca's tormented father, who tearfully proclaims himself a coward in public as a way of avoiding his responsibility to his daughter. At the first sign of pressure he demands that Francesca give in to Vito's demands. Italian singer Joe Sentieri plays a reluctant killer hired by both Vito and his mafia competition.
The Most Beautiful Wife keeps us firmly in Francesca's corner throughout the ordeal. The best thing about the film is that Vito's attacks and the slander in the streets only make her stronger. As did the real life Franca Viola, Francesca eventually prevails.
NoShame's disc of The Most Beautiful Wife is a fine enhanced transfer of this dramatically satisfying thriller. The color is excellent and Ennio Morricone's score is well recorded; his main theme is typically eccentric. An overlong documentary has good interviews with director Damiani (still going strong) and the now much heavier Alessio Orano.
The insert booklet gives us Richard Harland Smith's excellent liner notes on the director, the film and its stars. He notes that Alessio Orano and Ornella Muti were married five years later. I should think that The Most Beautiful Wife might make Ms. Muti acutely aware of the rights of women in society.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Most Beautiful Wife rates:
Supplements: docu Sicily, the Mafia and Beyond interviewing Damiano Damiani, Mino Giarda, Antonio Siciliano, Alessio Orano, Franco Di Giacomo; insert notes by Richard Harland Smith
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 13, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson