Summer in Sicily. Films reviewed: The Fiances, Seduced and Abandoned, Mafioso, PLUS Irrational Man
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Sicily is a part of Italy, but separate from it. It’s that huge island in the Mediterranean, influenced at times by Greece, Rome, Spain, or as an independent kingdom. This gives it a rich culture, dialect and customs that leaves most outsiders baffled. The island went through a slow economic downturn, but Italy’s postwar industrial boom eventually affected Sicily as well. Thousands of continentals were sent down to work there for the first time.
TIFF Cinematheque is running a series now called Summer in Italy, with many of the films set in Sicily. This week, I’m looking at three 1960s films about life on the island; and a contemporary American drama set on a campus in Rhode Island.
The Fiances (I Fidanzati, 1963)
Dir: Ermanno Olmi
A working class couple in northern Italy meet once a week at a formal dance hall. Giovanni and Liliana (Carlo Cabrini, Anna Canzi) are passionate lovers but their relationship is put on hold when he is sent by his factory to work in Sicily. Carlo feels lost and rootless in the very different world. But he’s also intrigued by their bizarre festivals, especially one where strangers can meet in the town square, their faces hidden by masks. Liliana meanwhile, feels abandoned and alone and wonders whether they are still together. Telephone calls are short and perfunctory, but can their love letters rekindle what they had?
The Fiances is a beautiful and deceptively simple black and white movie. It combines neorealism — documentary-style footage of Sicily with its beaches and dusty roads — with an experimental style. Past and present scenes are cut and pasted without explanation so it’s a bit hard at first to understand, but it looks amazingly contemporary in its form.
Seduced and Abandoned (Sedotta e abbandonata, 1964)
Dir: Pietro Germi
Don Vincenzo (Saro Urzi) rules his family home with an iron fist. Honour is paramount, and a loss of face could ruin a family’s reputation. So he reads every letter sent to his many daughters, just in case there is something lusty in them. He even checks underneath the postage stamps! Life is communal: multiple-generations all live under the same roof, so there’s a total lack of privacy. But they all manage to communicate using hidden notes and listening to sounds through pipes and vents. Peppino, a student (Aldo Puglisi) is welcomed as almost a family member since he is engaged to the clueless Matilde. But one evening, everything changes when he sneaks a kiss behind a curtain with the younger and prettier Agnese (Stefania Sandrelli). Sex follows and Agnese is in love. But Peppino, realizing what he’s done, stops coming by – he says has to study for exams. Agnese is mortified. And Peppino hypocritically says he wants nothing to do with a “despoiled woman” – even though he’s the only one who’s slept with her!
Eventually Don Vincenzo puts two and two together. He banishes Agnese to her room and decides that Peppino must marry his daughter… or die! Soon enough the police, lawyers, judges, a toothless aristocrat, a priest and the unruly mob on the street are all a part of this dispute. Will Peppino marry Agnese? Will Agnese agree even to see him again? And can Don Vincenzo rescue his family’s reputation?
This is a very funny comedy looking at virginity, family, honour and hypocrisy played out in a traditional Sicilian style.
Mafioso (Mafiosi, 1962)
Dir: Alberto Lattuada
Nino (Alberto Sordi) is a manager at an ultra-modern car factory in Milan. He is known for his punctuality and exactness. With a nuclear family — his wife Marta (Norma Bengell) and their two little girls — he seems to be a true northerner. But he’s a Sicilian at heart. After decades of work he finally gets a chance to visit his hometown so his wife and kids can meet his parents.
And as a favour to his boss – an Italian- American from New Jersey — he agrees to carry an important package to Don Vincenzo (another Don Vincenzo!) in his hometown. Once there, the family shares meals, goes to the beach and meets old friends. And while the in-laws are busy adjusting to the clash of cultures, the naïve Nino doesn’t realize he’s about to face a different problem. As a teenager, before he moved north, he worked as an errand boy for Don Vincenzo (the “mafioso” of the title). And now he’s calling in a favour. How much can a man’s life change in a 12 day visit back home? This is an excellent dark comedy exposing the sinister presence of organized crime in Sicilian life.
Dir: Woody Allen
Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a new philosophy prof at a college in Rhode Island. He specializes in existentialism, frequently dropping quotes by Kierkegard, Nietsche and Heideggar. It’s his first term there, but his reputation precedes him. His tales of derring-do and personal loss – concerning his best friend who was killed by a land mine, and his wife – give him an almost mythical status. He’s an existential nihilist, always ready for an impromptu round of Russian roulette. He goes by what his guts tell him. And by “guts” he means his prominent potbelly that he frequently rubs when pondering questions of morality and ethics.
Women seem to find him romantic and attractive. Rita (Parker Posey) is a sexy and sultry chemistry prof. The fact that she’s married doesn’t even slow her down – she wants to bed him. Eventually she hopes to ditch her husband altogether and move somewhere romantic with Abe – like Spain. Then there’s Jill (Emma Stone). She’s an undergrad in a committed relationship. Her boyfriend is nice, but a bit dull. She wants to spend time with Abe, but she keeps their relationship platonic. They both know it’s against the rules for students and profs to sleep together.
Unfortunately, Abe is depressed and brooding, his life at a standstill. Despite his reputation as a ladies’ man, he’s useless in bed. This isn’t help by the fact he’s an alcoholic, constantly swigging bourbon from a pocket flask. But one day, at a local diner with Jill overhear a conversation. A divorced woman at the next booth is in tears because she is about to lose custody over her kid. Why? It’s all because of the machinations of a horrible judge.
Something clicks in Abe’s brain: he makes a decision. He will murder a stranger (the judge) for the sake of another stranger (the woman). This will lead to a better world, he thinks. Now he has a reason for living, and his sexual drive and exuberance come back. But will he actually commit this “perfect crime”?
I have mixed feelings about this strange movie. On the one hand, its gripping story held my attention to the very (abrupt) end. But it also feels oddly hollow. It’s not a bad movie, just not as deep as it pretends to be.
Irrational Man opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and The Summer in Italy series is on now at TIFF Cinematheque through September 5. Go to tiff.net for details.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com