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Lionsgate has been releasing a wide range of vintage DVD product lately, digging into unaligned American libraries and assembling interesting collections from the European mega-title holder Studio Canal. This new Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection drags a net through the actress's filmography, snagging whatever is loose and available in color. It's a quirky selection: two early appearances predating Sophia's international breakthrough, one expensive 60s production, and a later weepie with Marcello Mastroianni.
Americans over forty certainly know of the Steve Reeves Hercules pictures, but may not be aware that the Italians invented large-scale ancient costume epics, back in the early silent era. Attila happens to be directed by Hercules director Pietro Francisi. The lavish but slow-going color potboiler pits Mongols against Romans and is every bit as stilted as its American counterparts. The main attraction is an unusual cast. Anthony Quinn joins the growing number of American stars finding leading roles in Italy by playing Attila, long mustache and all, as a tenth-century version of a western bad guy. This Attila loves his wife (Irene Papas!) and kids but feels it necessary to murder his brother for the good of Mongolian morale. He eventually wipes out a Roman army dispatched by a crybaby emperor, only to be stopped in mid-conquest by a Pope carrying a cross. One minute of listening to a Vatican choir, and Attila heads back for the Gobi, or the steppes, or wherever. Ennio De Concini and Richard C. Sarafian's script sets up a number of obvious story threads, each of which grinds to a predictable finish.
Sophia Loren is Honoria, a scheming imperial sister who throws herself at Attila's feet, thinking he'll share the empire with her after the conquest. It doesn't work out, though. The tall and graceful Loren doesn't have a chance to project much personality in the humorless story, and she barely survives beyond the second act. Eduardo Cianelli is Attila's grim advisor, warning Attila that the Romans' Christian god may be too powerful to oppose. The sets are big and the battles bigger, but very little excitement ensues.
The original Technicolor image may have been dazzling, but the transfer on hand is made from less than optimum elements and has weak, sometimes off-hue colors. Contrast is erratic as well.
Anthony Quinn appears to have brought along a Yankee entourage: actors Scott Marlowe and Richard Bakalyan are said to be among the cast. The relatively unknown Steve Reeves would arrive three years later, shift the emphasis to oiled musclemen and make Italian popular cinema profitable the world over.
Carosello Napoletano is the surprise of the collection, an impressive epic musical tribute to Naples produced on an MGM-sized scale. Director Ettore Giannini and an army of talented designers (including Mario Chiari) would appear to have been inspired by the fantastic visual ballets of Michael Powell (The Red Shoes) and Gene Kelly (An American in Paris), with a helping of Busby Berkeley thrown in as well. Red Shoes choreographer Léonide Massine comes up with at least thirty minutes of dance scenes.
The subject is the spirit of the city as filtered through the songs of a homeless sheet music salesman (Paolo Stoppa) and his family. The episodes begin with a ballet about a fisherman's fiancée 'ravished' by Moorish invaders, and then skip across the years to cover the period roughly 1880 to just after the First World War. One number celebrates Naples' record as one of the most-conquered cities in the world. Every scene is a kaleidoscope of costumes, color, music and dancing, all covered with a moving camera and elaborate scenery changes.
Two women fight over a man in one scene, and in another, a famed beauty dies by the hand of a jealous lover (Folco Lulli). The sentimental songs are traditional standards and opera highlights, beautifully orchestrated and performed. Some of the scenes are heartbreakingly beautiful and others less so. Although not quite as wondrous as it wants to be, the film has a light touch and many amusing moments.
Once again, Sophia Loren is just one beauty among many - Nadia Gray, Maria-Pia Casilio. Her Sisina is a photographer's model and singer in love with a soldier in the trenches. His three friends must return to bring her the bad news. Loren has more to work with here, but the heavy stylization doesn't permit a great deal of her personality to shine through.
Carosello Napoletano fares better for print quality, although the color in some episodes, particularly up front, is a touch on the wilted side. The audio for all of those pretty songs and dances is quite good. As Neopolitan Carousel the film was cut by a reel in the U.S.. Lionsgate presents the original full-length version.
The third title in the set leaps forward eight years, in which time Signora Loren did indeed conquer most of the known world, making a splash in Hollywood starring opposite the likes of Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne and William Holden. She got her Oscar for Two Women and then settled into a series of top-level Italian films, many for her husband Carlo Ponti and most notably with Marcello Mastroianni. Thanks to a single revealing shot in Boy on a Dolphin Loren became Italy's top sex symbol, leaving Gina Lolobrigida a close second. At least one of her early-60s comedies with Mastroianni featured a highly-publicized striptease, although Italian censorship and Loren's family image stepped in to make such scenes mostly wishful thinking.
Madame Sans-Gêne is a French movie, however, and it plays by different rules. Known in America as simply Madame and filmed in Super Technirama 70, this expensive Loren vehicle restages Napoleonic battles and giant ballroom scenes. Parisian laundress Loren falls in love with a young soldier (Robert Hossein) and follows him from campaign to campaign. The comedy revolves around Loren's oversexed (but wholesome!) nature, romantic misunderstandings, and an escapade as a prisoner of the enemy. She marries her soldier-lover. Years later she's delighted when her husband is nominated to become the king of a conquered principality. But Napoleon (Julien Bertheau) orders him to divorce and remarry, as the Emperor's sisters are offended by Sans-Gêne's crude manners. All turns out okay when Loren discovers that Napoleon is the same young officer whose shirts she once washed, back in revolutionary days.
Comedienne Loren is amusing, especially in a scene where she learns to curtsey. But viewers will more likely still be recovering from an opening episode in rebel-held Paris, that was the subject of a pictorial in an old issue of Playboy . Madame Sans-Gêne's peasant blouse is soaking wet from the laundry tubs, see, and Loren seems intent on proving that she's the most physical sex star on the continent. It's a case of proud self-promotion, not exploitation. Loren reportedly replaced Gina Lolobrigida in the role.
Lionsgate's attractive transfer has good color values and a decent look overall. The movie hasn't much of a reputation -- it was filmed several times before and is a remake of a better-remembered classic starring Arletty -- but Loren fans will be pleased. It's also the original European version, fourteen minutes longer than what was released in the U.S.
I Girasole is a bittersweet melodrama definitely out of step with film trends in 1970. Many Italians fought and died on the Russian front in WW2, and Vittorio De Sica's film stars Loren and Marcello Mastroianni as a married couple separated by the conflict. Antonio feigns insanity to keep from being shipped to Africa, but is found out and sent to the Russian front. He fails to return, and ten years later Giovanna journeys to Russia to search for him. She's convinced that he somehow survived, and by a strange chain of events finds him in a small town in the Ukraine. But the story is far from resolved.
De Sica steers the film away from bathos with his straightforward direction, aided by Loren's good acting. It's still a drawn-out handkerchief picture, with every sad scene backed by Henry Mancini's tender music score. The movie also functions as a Russian travelogue, with scenes filmed in Red Square. Out in the countryside we see an immense field of sunflowers (in Italian, Girasoli) covering a mass grave of Italian dead. A poem on a monument asks, "Why did you soldiers from Naples leave your beautiful Mediterranean to die in the snows of Russia?"
The narrative is more than a little lumpy. A stock footage war montage goes on seemingly forever, and the third act wanders aimlessly in search of an acceptable climax. One inessential episode showing a Russian family moving into a new apartment complex might have been imposed on the film by the Russian authorities. Fans of soapy romances will find the show highly enjoyable.
The print of I Girasoli is grainy, with okay color. Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography has an almost documentary look for exteriors but uses expressive shadows in a reunion scene in a darkened apartment. The movie appears to be full-length.
The Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection wraps up with a featurette that discusses the actresses' life, showing only clips from the four films and filling in with largely irrelevant historical detail. A limited number of stills are repeated several times each, as are some stock shots. Loren's children and the producer of I Girasoli appear, along with some knowledgeable historians.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection rates:
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