Perhaps no school of filmmaking understood this better than the Italians. From their celebrations of sex to their memorials to motherhood, the Mediterranean mindset is very much in tune with the power of women. It's interesting to note that, for a country famed for machismo, bravado and swagger, paternalism ends when it comes to Mamma, or your best gal. Indeed, beyond all the oppression and leering, the pinches and passes, Italian art worships the female of the species. In 1962, four of Rome's favored sons embarked on an anthology film founded in the principles of the 14th Century poet Boccaccio. Oddly enough, the author of The Decameron actually wrote a scathing rebuttal against women entitled Corbaccio. But his countrymen obviously don't share his disdain. Boccaccio '70 is a love letter to all ladies. And it's as lyrical as any work of literature.
Before dealing with these films as an anthology, it is important to discuss their individual merits, to show the aspects of each movie that makes it distinct, and its director important. When viewed as a whole, such an examination becomes difficult, as the stories and the settings seem to battle against and into each other until they form an uneasy, yet breezy aesthetic alliance. But examined in terms of Monicelli's ache for authenticity, Fellini's preoccupation with spectacle, Visconti's vow against the bourgeoisie and Di Sica's old world charms, this quadrilogy offers up a rather intricate portrayal of post-war Italy. Let's begin with:
Act I: Renzo e Luciana (Renzo and Luciana) – directed by Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street): ***1/2
Strip away the accents, the ethnic cosmopolitan throng and the almost Puritanical paternalism and you'd think that Renzo and Luciana was an Italian version of Barefoot in the Park. Using the newness of young marrieds as a counterpoint to the confusion of Mediterranean business ethics (apparently, women had to sign contracts against marriage before they could be employed), what we have here is less a comedy of errors, and more of humoresque based in twisted traditions. Never quite allowing us into the world of our paramours, director Monicelli uses inference to heighten the chaos in his couple's life, hinting with snatches of dialogue at the obstacles and prejudices they face. When viewed through the lens of life after wartime, however, it's easy to pick up on several of the filmmaker's fascinations. Monicelli loves the look, the smell, and the sound of the city in prosperity, of buses jammed with people, of marketplaces and homes bustling with families and friends. There are far more crowd scenes than intimate moments in Renzo and Luciana, a sign that the story is supposed to focus not only on the lovers, but on the logistics of their relationship in this new, optimistic time.
In probably the best romantic pairing of the set (frankly, it's the sole intended and obvious one), Monicelli introduces the bubbly, nymphet-like Marisa Solinas to world cinema, and her arrival is something to take note of. Her Luciana may be a small thing, but she is definitely the boss of her domain. It's not too hard when you've got the lunkheaded Germano Gilioli for a husband. As will be the case with three of the four male leads here (Dr. Antonio does not count), Italian director's seem to prefer dense, pretty boys to pair up with their intense, passionate leading ladies. Monicelli is not different. Renzo appears henpecked from the minute he walks onscreen, and only becomes more whipped as the narrative continues. By the end, we can see his fate as the normal course of events in married life, or as the direct result of Renzo's lack of "testicle" fortitude. Indeed, Monicelli is reminding us that, in the horribly chauvinistic world of the Mediterranean, guys may appear to be the masters. But they all bow to the power of the princess when push comes to shove.
Act II: Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio (The Temptations of Dr. Antonio) – directed by Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita): *****
As fellow DVDTalk critic DVD Savant mentioned, this is the "½" in Fellini's autobiographical masterpiece 8½. Prior to his involvement in Boccaccio '70, Fellini had indeed made eight movies, and The Temptations of Dr. Antonio is the sole short, therefore creating the inference in the title number. In many ways, The Temptations of Dr. Antonio is a walkthrough for many of the auteur's later works, an experiment in tone and symmetry, spectacle and social commentary that consistently builds in both laughs and meaning. When viewed as a criticism of censorship, Fellini pulls no punches. He uses the outrage expressed by Dr. Antonio (classic Italian comedian Peppino De Filippo) over anything slightly sexy as a mirror on how ridiculous such claims really are. While he pads his portrayal of the high-minded moralists a little too much (naturally, he's a secret letch at heart), Fellini obviously wishes to mock those whose ethical outcry is the result of personal, not public concerns. Dr. Antonio loves his sense of power, his ability to instantly have the ear of the government and the control over all situations. But he soon learns that, when it comes to issues of supremacy, no one takes the ruling reigns away from Anita Ekberg.
If one was to use just four words to describe this devastating blond bombshell, especially as channeled through Fellini's fleshpot sensibility, the phraseology would be simple: VA-VA-VA VOOM! The director couldn't have picked a better foil for his dithering doctor. As she proved in La Dolce Vita, Ekberg was the next phase in cinema sexuality, the upped ante after Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. This Swedish wonder was one of the first women to languish in their universal lust, to use the jeers and cheers from men around the planet to prop up, not pull down her position. All throughout The Temptations of Dr. Antonio, Ekberg teases and tempts the camera, playing directly to the audience to accept her pleas of passion. While questions of morality can be culled from all this carnality, Fellini is really just relishing in the ribald. By applying a Hollywood b-movie aesthetic to his film (the 50 foot woman work is great) as well as additional jabs at advertising and advocacy, this short proves that the inventive Italian filmmaker could combine both the surreal and the serious and make both points perfectly. It was only later on that he'd let spectacle rule his reasoning.
Act III: Il lavoro (The Job) – directed by Luchino Visconti (The Leopard): *****
Moving from the mania of Fellini to the control of Visconti, Boccaccio '70 delivers the most devastatingly personal story of the quartet with The Job. More or less a meditation on a marriage of convenience falling apart, this is a deceptively moving piece of filmmaking, one that reveals its complex layers in stellar sequences of gradual awareness. Visconti, who would use a similar approach for his masterpiece, The Leopard, is once again after the rich for their casual claim on reality. Our hero, the dull playboy Ottavio is more worried about his social status and his cash than he is about the effect of his infidelity – now part of the notorious Rome tabloid press – on his wife, Pupe. Not that this seemingly spoiled child of privilege seems to care, initially. Indeed, one of the great things about The Job is that Visconti constantly sets up the formulaic confrontations, only to subvert our expectations throughout. By the end, when we think we have the film figured out, the director delivers his knockout punch. In a truly amazing finale, Romy Schneider's Pupe gets to show exactly what's she's been feeling this entire time, and her husband's callous act proves the point in painful spades.
This is a tour de force performance by Schneider - make no mistake about it. Walking us through what appears to be the last 40 minutes in her character's idyllic married life, the cool, cat like actress runs the emotional breadth from cheeky to childish, determined to devastated. A hand constantly in her hair, and a glare that seems to come from just below her eye line, Visconti's camera drinks in every amazing moment of her work. It's a shame that most Western audiences only know her from silly sexbomb roles in Good Neighbor Sam or What's New Pussycat? She shows so much range here, so much onscreen dynamic that we can't take our eyes off her. While not a voluptuous beauty like Ekberg or Sophia Loren, Schneider sizzles with a kind of inner attractiveness, a vulnerability and sadness that makes you want to take her in your arms and comfort her. All throughout this clever cat and mouse, Visconti keeps us guessing, never once hinting at what will come next, or how his drama will play out. There are lots of memorable images in Boccaccio '70, but the last shot of Schneider – especially when we learn what comes before it – is perhaps the anthologies ultimate message. Women may be the strength of Italy, but they can crumble just as easily as they can control.
Act IV: La riffa (The Raffle) – directed by Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief): ****
It's time to move over to Va-Va-Va Voom's neighboring territory, "Mamma Mia" as the absolutely sizzling Sophia Loren engorges the screen with her overripe sensuality. So luscious you just want to lick her from head to toe, and filled with a genuine charm that moves beyond those obvious 'assets', her Zoe has us from the minute we lay eyes on her. No matter what happens in this rather stagy story, we know we will be pulling for this decent, hardworking carny as she struggles with her familial obligations. As far as the plot goes, we are treated to a kind of weird wish fulfillment as dirty joke, with lots of cornball conceits tossed in for good measure. De Sica, who went so far as to cast non-professionals to surround his sexual siren, is obviously hoping that the air of authenticity will help cure some of his story's silliness, but it doesn't quite work. It also doesn't help much that the object of Loren's desire, a rough trade type cowboy who looks more like a male model than an actual stable worker, makes no impression on us as an audience. Indeed, he barely registers any chemistry with the regal Roman goddess.
For his part, Di Sica does keep his narrative moving along swiftly. Once we learn of the raffle's intent, and why it needs to occur, we buy into the basics and that's all that's really necessary. The rest of the film is Loren teasing us with those sultry eyes and that overpowering body. She is seen shirtless several times – sorry guys, there's a lacy black bra for coverage each time – and has sequences where she is perfectly poised just so that the camera can make love to her. Obviously, Di Sica wants his star to be seen as sex incarnate, to fulfill the promise of this entire enterprise by proving that, no matter how much control they think they have, men will always undermine themselves at the sight of a fetching female. And in a minor slight to the Church's domination of daily life in Italy, the sacristan is portrayed as a dimwitted virgin who just wants a chance at something that is normally unobtainable for him. Indeed, Loren is, at times, such a cartoon force of carnality that we worry her bigger than life presence will drown the entire movie. In reality, Di Sica keeps us afloat, trading on his skill as a realist to make even this sexual fairytale seem plausible.
The Raffle shows, quite clearly, that at its core, Boccaccio '70 is a study in sexuality. It matches Schneider and Solinas against Ekberg and Loren and asks us to determine our own sense of sensual appeal. There will be many who fall for Luciana's childlike charms, enjoying both her weakness and her wrath. Others will languish in Schneider's unaffected heart, knowing that money has not ruined this true spirit the way it has the men in her life. For Ekberg, life is a billboard, a sad advertisement of her value as a human being with every glimpse of cleavage. And Loren is the Id unbridled, the ultimate ideal of sex gambled on for winning and losing. Boccaccio '70 is not a movie that's interested in the males circling these ladies like unsettled sharks. No, all four filmmakers have already made up their minds about men, and the verdict is not good. Arguing that they think with their crotches more than their heads – and with emotions a very distant third – all heroes here are left to lumber in their own libidos. No, our directors want to discover and delight in women, to celebrate and collaborate with them to prove that, at least artistically, they know where the true power in the world lies.
Indeed, Boccaccio '70 is a knowing nod to the truth about the female's domination of the species. But instead of condemning it, instead of arguing against the rights of women as part of a paternalistic society, each director wants to prove the inherent power in the so called softer sex. For Monicelli, the control is in the family unit. Luciana runs Renzo's life from the moment they marry, mimicking her mother's authority of her father perfectly. For Fellini, the female form with its curves and beauty is the ultimate corruptor, the definitive salesperson for any and every thing. They hold a magic that no man can physically obtain. In Visconti's world of cold, calculated cads, the woman is unwitting chattel, humanity personified almost always undermined for the sake of some lover's faults. And Di Sica? He just wants to celebrate the sex – the appeal of an ample bosom, the notion of comfort from a night in bed with an amazing physical specimen.
All inferences to the famous poet aside, Boccaccio '70 is a celebration of the opposite sex, a foursome of testaments to the undying connection between women and life. It may not always be happy, and as with most male-dominated arenas, it is filled with pitfalls unfathomable to females. But in the amazingly diverse styles of Monicelli, Fellini, Visconti and Di Sica, we have a marvelous motion picture experience that sets the record straight once and for all. The world does move on a woman's hips – and thank God for that.