If it weren't for his being mesmerized by Sophia Loren's sex appeal, Appellate Judge Dan Mancini would be deeply offended by this Italian anthology film's exploitation of Sophia Loren's sex appeal.
A film by V. De Sica, F. Fellini, M. Monicelli, L. Visconti
Boccaccio '70 is a four-part anthology film inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio's collection of bawdy, limerick-laden farces, The Decameron. The Italian-American brainchild of producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine, the film pulls together contributions from four major Italian directors: Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street), Federico Fellini (8 1/2), Vittorio De Sica (Umberto D.), and Luchino Visconti (The Leopard).
Mario Monicelli's contribution to Boccaccio '70 was cut for the film's theatrical run in the States, and this two-disc Special Edition DVD is the unexpurgated European version's first home video release in North America.
Facts of the Case
Boccaccio '70's four segments are spread evenly across this two-disc set (Disc Two also houses some supplements). The shorts are presented as follows:
• Renzo e Luciana
• Le Tentazioni del Dottor Antonio
• Il Lavoro
• La Riffa
Who but a collection of Italian directors could make a film that critiques sexual double-standards and the social disparity between men and women, yet manages to be damned sexy at the same time? No one, that's who. From Sophia Loren to Gina Lollobrigida to Claudia Cardinale, Italian cinema has an unparalleled track record when it comes to delivering curvaceous sex appeal. Its major directors—like the ones represented here—may have serious things to say about the sometimes precarious position of women in culture and society (consider Gelsomina's poignant suffering at the hands of her brutish husband in Fellini's La Strada, or the wartime victimization of Cesira and Rosetta in De Sica's Two Women), but they're also honest enough to confess the sub-intellectual power that shapely hips, breasts, and thighs have on men, themselves included. Boccaccio '70 is a case in point. It's a tangle of brains and libido, one part smart examination of postwar Italy's socio-economic landscape, one part lame-brained '60s sex romp.
It's not all that difficult to see why Joseph E. Levine singled out Mario Monicelli's Renzo e Luciana for sacrifice when shortening Boccaccio '70's nearly four-hour running time for its American release. Sure, one can point to the fact that Monicelli is a lesser name than the other three directors as explanation for his short film being dumped, but more to the point is that neorealism and light comedy make strange bedfellows. Renzo e Luciana is oddly unsatisfying. Its working class couple is nondescript, even if their love for one another has a certain measure of charm that effectively undergirds Monicelli's social critique. Luciana's having had to sign an agreement not to marry or have children in order to gain employment, as well as the way she and Renzo must live crowded in a tiny apartment with her outsized family, tangibly pits urban, industrial, postwar capitalism against the social and familial foundation of society. The conceit of young honeymooners harried by job and family, struggling to find even a few moments of privacy for a little nookie, has much comic potential, but Renzo e Luciana has a staid, low-key tone endemic to neorealism. Not only are laughs squandered, but the piece's flat affect clashes with its witty, vibrant, and subversive stealing-from-the-rich ending. As enjoyable as it is, the story's climax feels out of place.
If Mario Monicelli's contribution lacks verve, Federico Fellini's bursts at the seams with it. Le Tentazioni del Dottor Antonio is the most playful, precocious, and visually aggressive of the four entries. Dr. Antonio's contradictory mix of obsession and repulsion over Anita Ekberg's sex appeal begs to be read as a response to the morality crusade against Fellini's previous feature, the huge international hit La Dolce Vita, in which Ekberg's erotic assets played a thematically crucial role. The good doctor is more cartoon than character with his railing against obscenity and peeping with wonder out of his apartment window at the Ekberg billboard, but he's well-played nonetheless by veteran comedian De Filippo. The milk ad's oddly chaste focus on Ekberg's breasts, and its placement in a children's park is yet another example of Fellini's career-long obsession with the mother-whore dialectic. A dream sequence in which a King Kong-sized Ekberg holds a weeping and wailing Antonio to her breast would be outrageously over-the-top if the director didn't approach it with a self-aware playfulness that borders on self-parody. Dottor Antonio's zany tone and ambitious visual style (Fellini loads it with everything from forced perspective shots, to clever juxtapositions of images, to outsized versions of various Anita Ekberg body parts in the aforementioned dream sequence) leaves it slightly stylistically out of step with Boccaccio '70's other segments, but a perfect bridge between La Dolce Vita and Fellini's next film, 8 1/2.
Luchino Visconti's Il Lavoro is the only one of the segments with any measure of emotional depth. As such, it's easily the best and most satisfying of the lot. A child of the Italian aristocracy who became a Communist as an adult, Visconti's special talent is rich, detailed dissections of the self-indulgences and moral failings of the privileged classes that transcend mere Marxist ranting by remaining sympathetic to the land owners as human beings. Visconti may not be fond of the old Italian aristocracy and where it led his country, but he never populates his films with Princes and Counts who are caricatures of class villainy either. His examination of class structures is driven by a nuanced understanding of both human psychology and Italian history.
As with Fellini's short, Il Lavoro feels a little like a warm-up for one of its maker's feature-length masterpieces. Its marriage of convenience between mutually benefiting members of different classes mirrors the Claudia Cardinale subplot in The Leopard. Romy Schneider gives a surprisingly moving performance as the wounded but resolute Pupe. It's easy for us to sympathize with her over her decadent aristocrat husband. A smart scene in which he critiques the grammar of a poem she's written in Italian highlights the couple's differing views when it comes to the conflict between convention and personal expression. It reveals him as old-fashioned and conservative despite his libertine behavior with call-girls. He plays by a set of dying rules, a double-standard by which husbands may indulge themselves while their long-suffering wives do their duty at home. Unfortunately for the young Conte, financial realities have forced him into a marriage with the daughter of a nouveau riche German businessman, and she has no regard for his traditions. Ottavio and Pupe's verbal sparring over her poem perfectly sets up the segment's finale, a surprisingly witty and narratively satisfying turn on the old feminist saw (well, not so old when Boccaccio '70 was released) that patriarchy forces all women—even wives—to trade sex for money.
In De Sica's La Riffa, we finally get a pure sex romp—or nearly so. Zoe's economically necessary prostitution borrows some weight from Pupe's dire straits in Visconti's similarly-themed piece, but the goings-on are more antic here. Like a good neorealist, De Sica fills his film with a menagerie of regular folk, and the idea of Sophia Loren being bedded by one of the gaggle of oddball men is humorous while also encouraging us to sympathize with the unfortunate woman. There's no doubt De Sica is exploring the plight of women, and that he feels for his heroine, but it sure doesn't stop him from lingering again and again on Loren's bust and legs. In one scene a raging, runaway bull forces her to strip off her red blouse and stand in the public square wearing only her slip in order to avoid being gored (is that symbolism, or what?). In another, her cleavage becomes star of the show as she bends to slice a watermelon. De Sica's comedy is well-constructed, though, and his use of time is meticulous. Much of the humor is built on the growing anticipation among the townsmen as the time for the raffle draws near. They're like children eager for Christmas morning. Despite the subject matter, there's a sense of innocence about the proceedings, as if we're watching adolescents full of randy bravado amongst each other but probably incapable of doing any real wrong to Zoe if left alone with her. Our growing doubt that any of these rubes will know what to do with Loren once he's won her is the main source of chuckles. But considering the content of the three short films that preceded it, La Riffa's ending is disappointingly conventional. Zoe's budding romance with the rugged and handsome cowboy (certainly a better physical match with Loren than any of the other men) suggests that the moral of the story is that women must be won by merit, not in a game of chance. Zoe is saved from the chauvinism of the townsmen by the machismo of the cowboy. La Riffa's a fun ride, but its climax is odd and disappointing when set in relief against all that's come before.
DVD production has come a long way. It used to be that when a minor foreign classic was released by a small production house other than the Criterion Collection, one could rely on a shoddy disc. It was likely to sport a transfer at the incorrect aspect ratio, dumped to the digital realm from an inferior, unrestored source. Times have changed. NoShame's release of Boccaccio '70 isn't up to Criterion standards, but it's solid. The film is presented at its theatrical ratio of 1.66:1, and the transfer is enhanced for widescreen displays. The image is almost entirely free of dirt or damage, and colors are natural and accurate. Freeze-framing reveals abundant ghosting, so this may be a port of a PAL transfer created for a European release (no surprise there since NoShame is based in Italy and Los Angeles). Even if that's the case, it's not at all problematic when one is simply watching the film and not subjecting the transfer to close scrutiny for purposes of review. About the only substantive complaint about the transfer is that it's softer than it ought to be, but it's still a pleasure to watch. Its minimal flaws are far from distracting.
Audio is offered in 2-channel mono in both the original Italian and an English dub. Optional English subtitles are available. Be warned: If you select the English option, you'll discover the movie kicks off in Italian anyway. There's nothing wrong with your DVD. Because it was dropped from Boccaccio '70's U.S. release, Renzo e Luciana was never dubbed. As a result, the original Italian track plays regardless of which audio option is selected. The three remaining segments will be presented in English if that's the chosen option. The tracks themselves—both Italian and English—are solid presentations. Mixed to 2-channel mono, they exhibit only minor distortion—probably from the source—during the score's louder moments. Dialogue is clear and discernible, with the canned ambiance that is a hallmark of Italian productions, for which live sound was rarely recorded. From a technical perspective, the English dub is slightly less satisfying than the original Italian, offering a more muted and less convincing ambient space. Considering the age and origin of the source, neither option leaves much about which to complain. I'm not much for dubs, but I like that DVD can preserve the original English tracks created for the U.S. releases of foreign classics. When they're available, they should always be included, and NoShame's done a fine job preserving the English dub here.
As previously mentioned, Disc Two contains a handful of supplements. The feature itself is the European release version, but the main titles created for the U.S. release are included. Less stately, they're animated and set to a loungy score. They're presented unrestored and in pretty rough shape, framed at the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio. There are six small photo galleries—one for each of the segments, a collection of international poster art, and stills from the film's U.S. premiere. Each gallery runs as a slideshow set to music. There are also two trailers, one Italian the other American, and a supplement labeled "Archival Footage" that consists of less than a minute of De Sica talking about La Riffa and Sophia Loren. The set also includes an insert booklet that folds out to 8 1/2 x 11. It contains informative liner notes by Matthew Weisman, and a reproduction of the Exhibitor's Manual provided to American theater owners, which is filled with merchandising and publicity information and effectively demonstrates Boccaccio '70's walking the line between art film and sexy exploitation.
There's enough diversity among Boccaccio '70's four entries to keep the show entertaining. At the same time, the feature has a thematic consistency. Each of the segments deals in one way or another with the divergence between conventional morality and society's more practical mores, as well as sexual double-standards between men and women.
Fellini's and Visconti's segments are wholly satisfying and entertaining, each in its own way. Monicelli's entry is smart, but fails to entertain, while De Sica's is bawdy but empty fun. Anthology films always suffer to some degree or another from inconsistency, though, and, despite its flaws, Boccaccio '70 is one of the better examples of the genre.
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