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Louis Malle's widescreen Western epic, beautifully remastered in this DVD presentation, is quite a departure from his B&W thrillers and slice-of-life dramas. The movie is sort of Heller in Pink Tights meets La Revolucíon and is as commercial a French movie as one could imagine - it teams two top stars, Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau.
Viva María! has frequent detours into broad comedy and even slapstick, but maintains a whimsical tone of innocence with an almost nostalgic attitude toward revolutionary fervor. 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.
Viva María! is charming, sexy, funny and intelligent, a combination of qualities 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 a funny personality. The English owner is trying to perfect a gun that shoots around corners. A magician dazzles the rube spectators by performing 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 Marias.'
Bardot's part-musical introduction shows her childhood as an assistant dynamiter for her Irish father, a mad bomber for the I.R.A. (Fernando Wagner, one of the German generals in The Wild Bunch). When a bridge job goes bad and she has to blow up her own father, the un-worldly Bardot joins the theatrical caravan and teams up with Moreau, singing charming duets that frequently end in a strip-tease. She also discovers what sex is all about, taking a string of casual lovers in time-honored Mae West fashion. The liberating thing about all this supposedly amoral content is that the two Marias are in a position to pick and choose their male partners. There's no shame 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 Marias' notorious act. Entering the dictatorship of San Miguel, the troupe has to pass through the hands of 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 passes the skeleton of a horse and its rider - 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, mostly shackled to a dungeon wall. Moreau sneaks in to make love to him. She swears to carry on his work, and inspires the townspeople to revolt with a stirring speech that the rest of the troupe recognize as quotes from several Shakespearean plays.
Bardot's vocational experience with guns and bombs makes her the natural rebel leader, assaulting the cannon and machine guns of the hated land baron Don Rodrigo (Carlos López Moctezuma), a villain so evil that he hangs dissenters from a gibbet in the shape of a big letter "R." The various theater performers use acrobatics, feats of strength and prestidigitation in the big battle against the federal army, nothing as eye-catching as Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate, but cute gags nonetheless.
The Two Marias 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 main Priest (Francisco Reiguera, who was to be Don Quijote in Orson Welles' unfinished film) is a wily devil. He kidnaps the two French agitators after finding out that The Two Marias are so popular, their image is supplanting the Holy Virgin in personal shrines. There follows a hilarious slapstick dungeon scene as the priests try to use ancient Inquisition torture devices that keep falling apart.
Spaghetti westerns about revolutions would become a major subgenre in just a couple of years; many are comedies just as broad as Viva María!, yet few have its wit or style. Bardot and Moreau's potent sexuality seems to prevail in every situation, and we're left with a delightfully sexy romp. Some images of them on stage - legs poking out from behind curtains, and the duo multiplied tenfold in a set of mirrors - are fairly unforgettable. 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. I don't think Louis Malle ever made another epic comedy like this one, but I'm glad we have this one.
Viva María! is one of the films that MGM archivist John Kirk worked on in 1998 - see the very early MGM Video Savant Article about a "new" ending for the movie.
MGM's DVD of Viva María! is splendid, easily eclipsing the earlier laserdisc. The enhanced Panavision image is sharp and the color luscious. Bardot and Moreau have a fine time looking glamorous while throwing grenades, being sent before a firing squad, etc. Their cute songs are in mono but the audio quality is excellent. The old laserdisc had an extra English dub but this DVD only has a French language track with removable subtitles. The one extra is an over-emphatic trailer that doesn't do the film justice - and uses a title card to emphasize that Americans can see it in English!
The IMDB lists a slightly longer running time; the only continuity jump I noticed is a sudden music upcut in a shot of some wagons racing right to left. Perhaps a scene was lopped out somewhere along the line.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Viva María! rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 29, 2005