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Lorber Films' Great Italian Directors Collection lives up to its name, as it includes the intriguing first feature by Michelangelo Antonioni, a portmanteau film with important episodes by Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini, and one of the better sex farces of the 1960s by the talented Mario Monacelli. Remastered and polished for presentation, the four-disc set is a bounty of riches.
1950's Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore) is a somber romantic drama that breaks with the Italian neorealist trend. It's a noir murder tale, with a pair of skittish adulterers considering the murder of the rich husband they want out of the way. The almost hallucinatory beauty Lucia Bosé would run away with handsome, unlucky Massimo Girotti, but has grown accustomed to her plush lifestyle with servants and beautiful clothes. An additional cloud of gloom descends over the illicit lovers in the form of a memory -- Girotti's "inconvenient" girlfriend back in their school days met a violent end, and the suspicion persists that her death may not have been accidental.
Story of a Love Affair plays out under gloomy skies as the lovers meet in bleak locations reflecting the emptiness of their ambitions, and linking the film to director Antonioni's later existential, experimental ruminations. The show has the feeling of a soured "white telephone" movie from the 1930s, with once-elegant Italians now reduced to guilty materialists. Weirdly, the husband's suspicions initially bring the old lovers together, and then resolve the story without an actual crime ever taking place. But the lovers' guilt is no less acute. Massimo is ready with a gun but is sickened by his decision to use it; Lucia runs into the streets in a panic, surely ruining one of the most stunning dresses of the decade.
Lorber's superior transfer of Story of a Love Affair betters a Region 1 NoShame release from 2005. Some minor contrast flutter is still apparent in the rich B&W images. The two-disc presentation replicates NoShame's extras, all based on interviews from a 2004 re-premiere of the film in Rome. Famed cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno discusses the film's restoration in one featurette, while Identification of a Masterpiece lets the film's assistant director Francesco Maselli and a pair of film critics talk on about Antonioni and the film far too long. Story of a Peculiar Night is a lengthy account of the re-premiere that has a few good moments with the wheelchair-bound, silent Michelangelo Antonioni and the still-elegant Ms. Bosé. It too is padded with too much footage. Fragments of a Love Affair follows the assistant director on a tour of original filming locations. Galleries of stills and poster round out the package.
Twelve years later, Rome's CineCittá has become one of the hottest film centers in the world, and producer Carlo Ponti can put together a 200-minute anthology featuring four mini-features by top Italian directing talent. Make that three mini-features in America, for the opening segment was dropped when Joseph E. Levine imported Boccaccio '70. The American trailer explains that the title refers to what Boccaccio might come up with if he were to make a film in 1970; in other words, it's meaningless.
The episode Renzo e Luciana was dropped for America because it did not feature any big Italian stars. Director Mario Monicelli tackles a realistic working class story about lovers that must marry in secret. The company they both work for forbids this, even though it is entirely logical that nice youngsters like Luciana (Marisa Solinas) and Renzo (Germano Gilloli) will meet in the workplace. We see the pair forced to pretend that they are mere acquaintances, even as Luciana's pushy boss makes unwelcome advances. Things aren't much better at home when dealing with troublesome family members that allow them little privacy. The resolution is similar to Billy Wilder's The Apartment: when amore and lavoro don't mix, people with good hearts will choose Love over a job.
Federico Fellini's Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio is the "½" film in the director's feature count of "8½". Freed from the responsibility of turning out a full-length "masterpiece", the premiere Italian auteur has a fine time lampooning puritan film critics in the person of Dr. Antonio Mazzuolo (Peppino de Filippo), a blue-nose shocked when a huge new billboard promoting milk features a provocative photo of star Anita (Anita Ekberg). Come nightfall, Dr. Antonio experiences an erotic dream in which the billboard comes to life: an amazing colossal Anita pursues him through the city streets, and taunts him with her enormous cleavage. It's as if Fellini had a brainstorm after seeing Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It and Allison Hayes in Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. Adding to Fellini's circus-lke parades of clergymen, boy scouts and construction workers is a delightful, infectious advertising jingle for Milk by Nino Rota : "Bevete più latte / il latte fa bene / il latte conviene / a tutte le età!"
Luchino Visconti's Il lavoro is among the director's more interesting work. Made just before the epic The Leopard, this provocative tale takes place in a single luxury apartment, almost in real time. Beautiful Pupe (Romy Schneider) has been married a year to the indolent former playboy Conte Ottavio (Thomas Milian). The tabloids report that Ottavio has been caught in the company of a score of expensive call girls, a scandal that his lawyers try to neutralize to insure the flow of money from his rich father-in-law. Deeply hurt, but also proud and independent, Pupe decides to find out if her husband really loves her: Contacting the women he's been cavorting with, she discovers the truth about her fairy-tale of a marriage. Ottavio whines and pleads for his straying to be ignored, which prompts Schneider to put him to a special test. Meanwhile, Pupe goes through costume changes as servants bring food, start baths and ride herd on her collection of kittens. Pupe teases the increasingly nervous Ottavio with her body, while revealing several layers of inner disillusion and disappointment. The erotic one-act play conjures an ironic justice worthy of Boccaccio, and as a film about women and marriage, it is both profound and progressive.
That leaves Vittorio De Sica and the producer's spouse Sophia Loren to finish the show with La riffa, a spirited sex farce that pulls a bait 'n' switch game with its erotic content. Carnival girl Zoe (Loren) is elected to be the prize in a very popular raffle. The broad comedy presents common folk as mostly sweet but crude buffoons, and the shapely Loren as just another prize animal in a stockyard fair. Prospective lechers of all shapes and sizes show up to "see the goods". The level of comedy writing can be judged when Loren removes her red blouse so as not to arouse a mad bull. The bull calms down but the assembled gawkers are aroused en masse by the sight of the star's custom-fit lingerie. As one might expect the episode is all tease and no payoff. Ms Loren dances to some cute Rock 'n' Roll and cha-cha riffs, and sings a song called "Money Money Money." De Sica's episode is the least challenging of the four.
The early 1960s saw a steady stream of sex farces starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Although advertised as racy bedroom comedies, Italian censors saw to it that they remained mostly chaste affairs, at least in terms of nudity or actual sexual situations. American audiences flocked to see Sophia after a sexy photo layout in Look Magazine showed her doing a striptease for Marcello. But most of Loren's films went no further than Church-respectful satire and earthy innuendo.
1966's Casanova '70 is also produced by Ponti but does without Ms. Loren in favor of pairing Marcello Mastroianni with a veritable harem of Italian beauties. The clever screenplay uses the tale of a modern Casanova to present one bed-hopping situation after another, and sometimes concurrently. The censors were loosening up, a trend that Ponti and director Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street) were quick to exploit.
The screenplay's burlesque-like concept keeps womanizer Major Andrea Rossi-Colombotti engaged in amorous action. Andrea fears that normal sexual relations leave him impotent. He can become aroused only when faced with imminent danger. If a girl offers herself to him he flees in shame, but the riskiest situations turn him into a wild man. Andrea relates his bedroom failures and triumphs to a psychiatrist. He flopped with an Indonesian stewardess (Seyna Seyn) but scored with Lolly (Margaret Lee), the wife of his superior officer in NATO. A compliant hotel maid (Rosemary Dexter) just made Andrea nervous, but the chance to make love with an eager partner (Beba Loncar) during a guided museum tour is a big success. Other frustrated or enchanted women include the conventional Noelle (Michèle Mercier), a prostitute whose customers mysteriously die (Moira Orfei) and L'addolorata (Jolanda Modio), a Sicilian fireball that he seduces while her entire knife-wielding family waits just outside the door.
The irrepressible Andrea also wants a serious life companion, and is strongly attracted to two very different women. The treacherous Thelma (Marisa Mell) wants Andrea to murder her possessive, deaf but fabulously wealthy husband; our hero is attracted to the danger but not the crime. Andrea makes an attempt at a non-sexual relationship with the virginal Gigliola (Virna Lisi), who wanted to become a nun but obeyed her family's request to stay at home. The couple fares well for a time, as Andrea respects Gigliola and enjoys the break from the pressures of the amorous imperative. Then, a ravishing circus lion-tamer (Liana Orfei) requests a member of the audience to volunteer to kiss her in the presence of her four ferocious jungle cats... an erotic dare that Andrea cannot refuse!
Casanova '70 cleverly uses the "70" title to reference spicy audience memories of the earlier picture. Mastroianni carries his somewhat silly but enviably active role with great style, and Virna Lisi and Marisa Mell give nuanced performances as the main female stars. The highly polished production features stunning cinematography by Aldo Tonti, who makes the gallery of beautiful women look simply stunning. An added plus is the jazzy, eccentric music score by Armando Trojajoli, an unsung master of the lush Italo Lounge style. Casanova '70 is a bedroom farce with genuine class; the sexy story never feels cheap or exploitative.
Lorber Films' DVD set of the Great Italian Directors Collection gives us the three quality productions in attractive recent transfers. The two color pictures are a pleasure to watch, with bright colors and warm flesh tones. They also inlcude original trailers and still galleries. Casanova '70 and Boccaccio '70 are available in separate Blu-ray editions, which look even more attractive.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Great Italian Directors Collection rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.