Friday, June 26

Good 60s Films: The Secret of Santa Vittoria

1969 Comedy Drama
From Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Directed by Stanley Kramer

Anthony Quinn
Anna Magnani
Hardy Kruger
Virna Lisi
Sergio Franchi
Giancarlo Giannini
Renato Rascel
Patrizia Valturri
Eduardo Ciannelli

I'll tell you what the secret is.  It's that if you haven't seen this movie or (horrors!) even heard of it, you are missing a most wonderful film.  If you have been unable to sit in the back of an acting class and watch prominent actors come and practice their craft, then joyously treat yourself to Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani in gargantuan performances, among the best of their weighty careers.

It is about decent and honorable people vs bullies which wends its way toward being a feel-good flick for sure.   Despite the obstacles that face a small Italian village during WWII, including the German army, you know it all has to end well because it concerns the resilience of the human spirit and at least as presented by Stanley Kramer, that spirit must soar.  

The film has a tag line:  In the beginning there was Bombolini the fool, Bombolini the drunk, Bombolini the joke.  In the end there is Bombolini the mayor, Bombolini the hero, Bombolini the beautiful.  In between is the secret of Santa Vittoria.

It is a hot 1943 in the wine-making mountain village of Italy's Santa Vittoria.  Bumbling Bombolini, a buffoon and to some the town drunk, is thrust into the position of mayor.  No one thinks he is qualified for it and he is completely aware that they think he is little more than a clown.  His wife, who has kicked him out of their home, which sits above their café in the piazza, thinks he is ridiculous and an embarrassment.

When the Fascist government leaves the town, Bombolini suddenly takes his job seriously.  He sobers up and makes it known that he is going to kick some butt.  He starts with getting everyone to clean up the town and give it some sheen. 

One day his daughter's boyfriend is away and overhears that the Germans are set to arrive in Santa Vittoria.  Someone mentions that the village has housed in it over a million bottles of wine.  Actually, it's 1,313,000 and Germans plan to take it all.  To save the long-term future of the Santa Vittoria, its citizens cannot allow that to happen.

Bombolini and a friend come up with the idea to hide a million of those bottles before the Germans arrive in a few says.  They are hidden in four of the tunnels in caves along the mountainside and then the entryways are sealed shut.  The opera of deception is played out as the 1,200 residents form long lines and pass one million bottles among them until they are all inside the caves.  Actually this piece is one of my favorite scenes.  To see these determined people in their colorful clothes carefully but cheerfully passing along the bottles while they engage in conversation is augmented by the beauty of Guiseppe Rotunno's sparkling photography and Ernest Gold's happy musical score.

When the Germans arrive, led by a feisty but surprisingly fair-minded captain, stress is put on the town because the captain isn't buying those million bottles aren't being hidden somewhere.  But where?  He is not fooled into thinking the 313,000 left in plain view is all there is.  There becomes a tug-of-war between the captain and Bombolini.

The captain conducts interviews and interrogations with many of the townsfolk.  One of them involves Rosa Bombolini, the mayor's belligerent wife.  The German is having a lunch at her café and she roughly puts his food on the tables and talks to him with the contempt with which she speaks to everyone.

Captain:  Your manners leave something to be desired.

Rosa:  We didn't invite you here.

Captain:  Sometimes it would be a good idea for you to keep your mouth shut.

Rosa not only doesn't keep it shut but seems insistent in goading the captain to further action.

Captain: Senora, even for a woman with your powerful face, you're becoming a little too brave for your own good.

A secondary story involves a contessa who has returned to Santa Vittoria to avoid her problems and a wounded resistance fighter she is nursing back to health and falling in love with.  The German captain takes a shine to her as well which doesn't set well with the wounded houseguest.  A comical story also develops between Bombolini's 16-year daughter and a slightly older friend of her father's and Rosa's strong objection to the union.

All ends well, of course.  That's not always true in a Stanley Kramer film since his works are usually more serious than this one.  The Secret of Santa Vittoria, while totally appropriate to be included in my Good 60s Movies category, must have been a vacation to the serious-minded Kramer.

As delightful as I found the story to be, the real appeal is in three wonderful performances.  I wonder how Italians, Greeks, Turks and others have felt about Mexican-Irish Anthony Quinn frequently masquerading as one of them.  Was Vittorio Gassman busy?    Quinn wasn't always the easiest actor to work with.  His long career, his once long-time family association with Cecil B. DeMille, gave the actor some sense of entitlement and he could go diva faster than you could say it.

And Anna Magnani... whoa!  The First Lady of Italian Cinema was as fiery off screen as she was on.  Temperamental, impatient, insulting, she was a known troublemaker on film sets.  But could she act!  She tapped into emotions like no other and delivered them with a fierce intensity.  It's a shame American audiences never truly embraced her.  Her career here was brief and basically lackluster although she did win an Oscar for The Rose Tattoo.  The Secret of Santa Vittoria would be her last American film.

She and Quinn worked together in her first American film... 1957's Wild Is the Wind.  She seemed to have little respect for him and needled him constantly and he simply couldn't stand her.  I suspect his type of man liked women a bit more obedient.  It is amazing they signed up to do another film together.  In one of the funniest moments of the 139-minute film, she throws pots and pans at him and kicks him and chases him through the house and café with a rolling pin.  It's said it was her favorite segment.

But what is undeniable is how good they both are.  His performance is mostly comical and hers is mostly dramatic.  Both bring their A-games to the proceedings.

Equally wonderful is Hardy Kruger as the German captain.  I wrote a piece earlier on him, stating my admiration for his talent.  He had some eye-candy promise but it is the authority with which he invests in the few roles that I have seen him in that most impresses me.  His captain is a flesh and blood portrayal, not some cutout we have seen a gazillion times.

Giancarlo Giannini was just 27 when he made this film.  He was lively and engaging and full of the passion we come to expect from our Italian friends.  I had no idea he was once so good-looking.

I am sure this is the only film I have ever seen of Virna Lisi and Sergio Franchi.  I thought she, too, was pretty easy on the eyes.  Around the time of the film's initial release, I recall hearing a lot of moaning about Franchi in this part but I thought he was fine.

The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a fictional story about a real place.  To this day the city still produces wine.  The movie was not filmed in Santa Vittoria because, by 1969, it had become too modern looking to represent 1943.  Instead the location was the very picturesque Anticoli Corrado.

Stanley Kramer said:  I envisioned the picture as a celebration of principle and resistance,  as led by their bibulous and colorful mayor, the townspeople refuse to knuckle under to their oppressors.  I wanted the story to represent one town's indomitable spirit.

Here, have a look at the finale:

It occurred to me as I finish this that The Secret of Santa Vittoria is my third film reviewed under the Good 60s Movies banner that was filmed in Italy... Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell and The Light in the Piazza being the other two.  I think it's your influence, Carlo.

Next posting:
Richard Harris

1 comment:

  1. After what You said about great Anna ( Annarella for Italians), whatever I might say would sound flat and trivial. Let me spend a few word on Virna Lisi. She worked mostly for TV, and believe me she turned out to be a very, very good actress and in person she looke more beautiful than on the screen. Nothing else for now. Ciao