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A Brief Vacation

A Brief Vacation
Home Vision Entertainment
1973 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 112 min. / Una breve vacanza / Street Date December 16, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Renato Salvatori, Florinda Bolkan, Daniel Quenaud, José María Prada, Adriana Asti, Teresa Gimpera
Cinematography Ennio Guarnieri
Production Designer Luigi Scaccianoce
Film Editor Franco Arcalli, Kim Arcalli
Original Music Manuel De Sica
Written by Rafael J. Salvia, Rodolfo Sonego and Cesare Zavattini
Produced by Marina Cicogna, Arthur Cohn
Directed by Vittorio De Sica

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Home Vision Entertainment once again sneaks a great picture onto the market. This one's a superior drama that thoroughly charmed the few American audiences who saw it first run.

Vittorio De Sica is best remembered for his neo-realist classics of the late 40s and early 50s; as the tone of Italian filmmaking shifted in the 50s he changed over to light comedies, most successfully with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. In the early 70s, he returned to form with this drama of a working woman's place in modern Italy's semi-socialist reality.

The acting is marvelous, and the tale has enough lively elements to avoid the relentlessly grim atmosphere shared by most of the original neorealist movies. This one gets a solid recommendation.


Clara Mataro (Florinda Bolkan) is near collapse on her factory job in Milan. With her husband (Renato Salvatori, of Z) laid up by an accident, she's the only breadwinner and is expected to cook and care for her three kids and mother-in-law as well, and now she's coming down with tuberculosis. In Italy's social system, she's sent to a sanatorium in the alps for a rest cure, something her husband selfishly opposes. For the first time she has time to read and interact with other people, patients and doctors. Even the rich patients have good qualities, and Clara's self-image is enhanced when another recuperating worker, Luigi (Daniel Quenaud) shows interest in her. It's like beginning a new life ... which will be ended when Clara is cured.

Una breve vacanza is deliberate but never slow. We're concerned for Clara Mataro from the very beginning, as she slugs through a depressing workday that makes the feminist concerns of Diary of a Mad Housewife seem like trifles. There are no outright villains to blame. Her husband is no more selfish or jealous than any other husband. It's just the overwork and responsibility that drive Clara into isolation. The first time we see a glimmer of hope in her eye is when the doctor insists she take a cure in a place that sounds like a heavenly resort.

The expressive Florinda Bolkan is a fascinating heroine. Starting with Machine Gun McCain, the Brazilian actress made many Italian films alternating between edgy exploitation (Flavia the Heretic) and strong character portraits that used her dark good looks. In Vacation she's a southerner from Calabria. Sullen and sickly, she shrinks like a shameful mouse in the early reels, as if apologizing for being poor, Southern and unglamorous. We therefore share her happiness when her experiences give her something to smile about, and the movie blooms with her.

A Brief Vacation has a social lesson on its agenda, but its relaxed tone makes it a lot more pleasant to watch than something like Umberto D. In short, there's hope and pity and kindness in Clara's world. The sanitarium is a beautiful snowbound haven and its affluent guests are mostly kind and sweet. Clara has to fend off the unwelcome advances of one doctor, which puts her in a strange place - she's sort of a 'guest' in his house, at least from her point of view. Clara's friends are fashion models and spoiled housewives that quickly accept her for what she is, and when her self-image improves, her dull clothing and un-styled hair are no longer a liability.

Director De Sica veers from the old formula by allowing a romantic element into the story. Clara builds a new relationship with a handsome and sensitive man younger than herself. Miraculously, the story doesn't suffer from what in other hands would become soapy wish-fulfillment. The nagging truth of the situation is always there: eventually Clara will be cured, and she has an almost completely dependent family waiting for her back in her Turin slum. Will her brief happiness turn out to be a curse?

After fifteen years of sometimes weak comedies (After the Fox, Woman Times Seven), De Sica's A Brief Vacation is a pleasing drama with a strong how-will-this-resolve factor. I had forgotten its power. As entertainment it's more enjoyable than his neo-realist classics, because its characters' world has more hope and less fatalism. Clara undergoes positive change, and the ending isn't as bleak as was mandated back in the B&W days. The script has room for wider range of expression, including a funny moment that might be a comment on De Sica's The Bicycle Thief: Clara's husband selfishly asks the doctor what the family's supposed to do when she's gone, and the doctor replies, "Why don't you try stealing?"

HVe's DVD of A Brief Vacation is stunning, looking far better than the bleary import print I saw in 1974. The footage in Milan is as beautifully shot as the snow-capped mountain peaks in the alpine retreat. This was a very satisfying experience, similar to the recent, much more whimsical Bread and Chocolate.

As an expanding label, Home Vision is becoming more extras-sensitive. On this disc we're given two interesting segments from De Sica's comedy Woman Times Seven. They do connect somewhat, in that Shirley MacLaine is a solitary woman dealing with romantic problems, but the short vignettes in themselves are pretty thin. HVe just announced a promotion of three excellent Joseph Losey films coming early in March: Mr. Klein, La Truite, and the excellent Time Without Pity.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Brief Vacation rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: clips from De Sica's Woman Times Seven, with Shirley MacLaine.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 7, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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