"Remember…if you don't speak up, they'll screw you over…'If you act like a sheep, the wolf will eat you.'"—Scanziani
Like his peers, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, the late 1950s found Vittorio De Sica drifting away from the Neorealism of earlier masterpieces like The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Umberto D. (1952). The director's penultimate film, 1973's A Brief Vacation, is almost a return to form, the director's final stab at the mode of filmmaking that established his reputation.
Facts of the Case
Clara (Florinda Bolkan) is a factory worker and mother of two nearing middle age, and the sole source of income for her temporarily disabled husband Franco (Renato Salvatori, Big Deal on Madonna Street), and his mother and deadbeat brother. Taken for granted by her family and exhausted by her dirty, dangerous labor, Clara is near the end of her rope when she collapses at work. A doctor at a National Health clinic diagnoses her with a treatable lung disease and sends her off to a sanitarium in the mountains. There she's befriended by a gregarious former singer dying of tuberculosis named Scanziani; Gina, a kept woman escaping her husband; and a young girl named Maria who is perpetually in love with one or another of the resort's doctors. She also takes a lover. But when the sanitarium's doctors pronounce her cured, her short escape from reality comes to an abrupt end.
Its tone makes A Brief Vacation an odd piece of Neorealism. Sure, the first 30 minutes, with their focus on the drudgery of Clara's life and the scenes of her toiling in the factory, seem right out of that school's playbook. But it isn't until our heroine arrives at the mountain sanitarium that the film comes alive, and those scenes offer a stark departure from the bleak Marxist formulas endemic in Neorealism. Initially, the titular vacation offers Clara little relief from the bounds of class as the group of women arriving at the sanitarium is assigned rooms in the dormitory based on whether their visit is being financed out of pocket or by the socialized health care system. Clara is meek and pained at first in the presence of the wealthier, more confident women around her, but soon class fades into the background as she forms friendships, the reality of her day-to-day life dissipates, and we learn even the lives of the rich are plagued with relational difficulties, health problems, and the like. Clara's taking of a lover in the film's final act—a man she met at the clinic prior to being sent off to the resort—is a piece of melodrama, but is also symbolic of her completely letting go of her previous life and becoming her true self minus the stifling limitations of class and society. It's at this point in the narrative that her doctors declare her completely cured, an announcement De Sica treats as a punishment, delivered with a kind of gentle, authoritative malice.
A Brief Vacation is, in effect, Neorealism by contrast. If De Sica's earlier films, like Umberto D., sought to demonstrate the dire, inescapable existence of the working classes, this later film provides us a glimpse of a classless utopia. Because much of the film is set in the semi-utopia of the sanitarium, the overall tone is less oppressive than one expects of Neorealism. It's for this reason there's a lack of critical consensus with regard to whether the film can be considered truly and fully Neorealist. But the crushing impact of the film's finale—our realization that Clara's blossoming was temporary, that her life will return to the way it was prior to her collapse, and that, unlike the wealthy women, she will not have the freedom or resources to return to the sanitarium as a periodic escape from reality—has much in common with Umberto D.'s end and places A Brief Vacation firmly in the school of Neorealism.
The movie's look, characterized by straightforward compositions and a natural color palette, belies the challenges inherent in bringing it to DVD. Home Vision has delivered a handsome disc that handles De Sica's heavy use of soft filters with aplomb, avoiding the potential pitfalls of noise and blockiness inherent in dealing with a purposely hazy image. Color is rendered with great accuracy and clarity, and blacks are solid as can be. With the exception of some isolated establishing shots marred by scratches and other damage, the print used to create the transfer is clean, stable, and well-preserved. Given the fact A Brief Vacation is not a major De Sica work worthy of the large-scale restoration treatment it would've received under Home Vision's Criterion Collection banner, the presentation on this disc is entirely satisfying. In fact, it's downright impressive considering the movie's relatively low profile.
The Dolby Digital two-channel mono track, reproducing the film's original soundtrack, leaves nothing to complain about.
Supplements include an informative insert essay by screenwriter and film professor Ronald Falzone, as well as two excerpts from De Sica's 1967 film, Woman Times Seven, starring Shirley MacLaine, Peter Sellers, and Michael Caine.
Vittorio De Sica produced very few gems in the latter part of his career. A Brief Vacation is one of the good ones, and it's well worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Excerpts from De Sica's Woman Times Seven
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