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Louis Malle's lighthearted Western epic Viva María! is quite a departure from the director's B&W thrillers and world-class documentaries. The movie is sort of Heller in Pink Tights meets La Revolucíon. It takes frequent detours into broad comedy but maintains a tone of innocent nostalgia attitude toward revolutionary fervor. It's also as commercial a French movie as one could imagine -- it teams two top stars of its day, Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau.
Viva María! Moreau and Bardot are sexy rebels that use their talents and charms to stir the common people to revolt -- without any specific topical references to get in the way. The big-budget comedy has many targets -- despotic landlords, Inquisition-mad priests, and vain actors who regard revolution as a chance to perform on an even bigger stage.
María (Brigitte Bardot), the Irish-French orphan of a terrorist bomber, quickly learns about love and the theater when she joins a travelling music hall troupe in the Latin American country of San Miguel. She pairs with another María (Jeanne Moreau) in a racy stage act that thrills the locals with songs and a partial striptease. Running afoul of local land barons, crooked militia and underhanded priests, they side with revolutionary Florès (George Hamilton) after witnessing a massacre. María's expertise with machine guns and dynamite comes in handy in their battles with the forces of oppression!
The utterly charming Viva María! is sexy, funny and intelligent, a combination hard to come by in a genre farce. Louis Malle and Jean-Claude Carrière's script succeeds by placing an amusing theatrical troupe in the middle of a comic-opera civil war. Every performer has an amusing personality. The English show impresario is trying to perfect a gun that shoots around corners. A magician dazzles the peasant spectators with feats of magic, like plucking the bullet out of a freshly shot dove and bringing it back to life. The brutish strong man is devoted to his tiny wife. And the son of one of the performers is continually being slapped for showing a precocious interest in the troupe's headliners, 'The Two Marías.' It's the kind of part-fantasy where, when Bardot cries, her magician colleague will produce a handkerchief for her -- from a buttonhole. When Moreau is desperate to be with her lover in the next prison cell, the strongman helpfully bends the iron bars so she can slip through.
Bardot's part-musical introduction shows her childhood as an apprentice dynamiter to her Irish father, a terror bomber for the I.R.A. (Fernando Wagner, one of the German generals in The Wild Bunch). The British Empire is pictured as polite, orderly and fully worthy of attack. Once on her own, the un-worldly teams up with Moreau, asking only if the vagabond theater life is fun and exciting. They become star attractions singing charming duets that frequently end in a striptease. Bardot-María also discovers what sex is all about, taking a string of casual lovers in time-honored Mae West fashion. The liberating angle is that the two Marías are the ones to choose their male partners. No shame is connected to their free lifestyle, and the rest of the troupe respects them.
Viva María! has a sly sense of humor. Peasants exchange chickens and pigs for admission to The Two Marías' notorious act. Entering the dictatorship of San Miguel, the troupe passes by the English customs agents - all of whom are ever-so-polite, tea-drinking Anglo-Africans. Some of the jokes border on the surreal, as when a forced march through the desert comes upon the skeletons of a horse and its rider - both standing upright, with the human skeleton still in the saddle!
The plot takes a playful turn toward the subject of revolution when Jeanne Moreau falls in love with George Hamilton's handsome patriot. He's in the show only for a few minutes (not a bad idea) and spends most of his time shackled to a dungeon wall. Moreau sneaks in to make love to him. Swearing to carry on his work, she then inspires the townspeople to revolt. As the peasants watch, Moreau makes a grand entrance on a balcony, a prelude to a stirring patriotic speech. Her theatrical peers recognize her words as quotes lifted from several Shakespearean plays.
Bardot's vocational experience with guns and bombs makes her a natural rebel leader. She's also something unique in action spectacles, a woman who is better with weapons than any man. Bardot-María assaults the cannon and machine guns of the hated land baron Don Rodrigo (Carlos López Moctezuma), a villain so evil, he hangs dissenters from a custom monogrammed gibbet. The theater performers use acrobatics, feats of strength and prestidigitation in the big battle against the federal army. The gags aren't quite as dazzling as Burt Lancaster's circus tricks in The Crimson Pirate, but are cute nonetheless.
The Two Marías are even more successful as revolutionaries than they are as singers, recruiting a huge army and riding defiantly on the front of a battle train stolen from the government. San Miguel's dictator is just a fool but the local Priest (Francisco Reiguera, Orson Welles' Don Quijote) is a wily devil. He kidnaps The Two Marías because they've become too popular for comfort: their image is supplanting the Holy Virgin in personal shrines. There follows a hilarious slapstick dungeon scene as the priests' ancient Inquisition torture devices keep falling apart.
Radical-chic Spaghetti westerns were to become a major subgenre in just a couple of years. Several are comedies as broad as Viva María! but none achieve Malle's wit or style. Bardot and Moreau's potent sexuality prevails in every situation, leaving us with a delightfully sexy romp. George Delerue's songs and musical numbers are delightful, and some of the glamorous images of the two stars are fairly unforgettable: inviting legs poking out from behind curtains, the duo multiplied tenfold in a wall of mirrors. As a musical pair the two actresses seem to get along famously, and Moreau isn't the least bit jealous of her co-star. This kind of sex-icon comradeship hadn't been seen since Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The only people to whom I wouldn't recommend the movie are those who might be offended by the opening where little Bardot and her terrorist father cheerfully blow up everything from London hotels to the Rock of Gibraltar. It's as cheerfully anarchistic as Sergio Leone's A HREF ="http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s2331leon.html">Duck You Sucker. I don't think Louis Malle made more epic comedies, but I'm glad we have this one.
Viva María! is one of the films that MGM archivist John Kirk restored in 1998 - see the very early MGM Video Savant Article about a "new" ending for the movie.
This movie always looked good, but KL Studio Classics' Blu-ray of Viva María! shows off Henri Decaë's stunning cinematography better than ever before. Bardot and Moreau are at all times ravishing, and the movie looks big and glamorous whether we're watching a giant battle or just the two women in a circus wagon. Bardot and Moreau have a fine time playing daredevil heroines while throwing grenades, being sent before a firing squad, etc. Their cute songs are in mono but the audio quality is excellent.
The IMDB lists a slightly longer running time; the only continuity jump I noticed is a sudden music up-cut in a shot of some wagons racing right to left. Perhaps a scene was lopped out somewhere along the line.
The American trailer included doesn't do the film justice. One slightly frustrating drawback is that the charming lyrics to Bardot and Moreau's stage songs aren't subtitled, as they were on all previous home video versions. Casual viewers might not understand that the Two María's are selling themselves as exotic Parisiennes when in the New World, and when in Europe as exotic Latinas.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Viva María! Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.