Friday, August 29, 2014

THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA: Blu-ray (MGM/UA 1969) Twilight Time

The Secret of Santa Vittoria is that there are over a million bottles of wine hidden somewhere in the catacombs beneath this tiny, bucolic, Tuscan hamlet. Stanley Kramer’s nearly forgotten 1969 masterpiece proved an unfortunate box office disappointment for the director; also something of a most unhappy working experience between costars, Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani, who could not stand one another. In his biography, Kramer would recount how Magnani introduced herself as “a perfect lady”, impeccable dressed and speaking exquisite English as she took Kramer on a tour of Cinecittà; the film studio founded by Benito Mussolini in 1937 that would serve part of the production shoot. “I thought, ‘wow’ – what a lady!” Kramer added, “Then she gave me a warning… ‘Don’t eat in the commissary – the food is shit!’ Right then I realized there was another side to her.” 
Indeed, Magnani had developed something of a reputation for being ‘difficult’. In Anthony Quinn’s case, she seems merely to have taken an immediate dislike to his gregariousness; believing he was deliberately trying to upstage her and steal every scene in the movie. In retrospect, there may be something to this; Quinn’s vigorous turn as the befuddled ‘blow with the prevailing political wind’ mayor elect, Italo Bombolini, shaping up to be a rather transparent throwback to his Oscar-winning performance in Zorba the Greek (1964). In one particular scene, Magnani’s Rosa Bombolini is so enraged by her husband’s embarrassing display of drunkenness atop a water tower she patiently waits for him to awaken from his stupor before terrorizing him in the kitchen, flinging a series of pots, pans, and a rather phallic rolling pin at his head.
Reportedly, Magnani wasn’t kidding around during this scene; striking her co-star with everything she had and even fracturing her ankle while attempting to kick him in the backside. Ever the pro, Magnani bandaged up her broken foot and returned to the set to continue the shoot, her venom for Quinn unabated. Interestingly, the tempestuousness between these two tigers translates into self-deprecating charm in the movie; Rosa’s constant chiding of her ‘clown’ husband met with infrequent outbursts by Quinn’s sheepish and shrinking patriarch, who rises to the occasion by sparing his town the indignation of surrendering its one indisputable export – the wine – to the Nazi high command.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria is based on Robert Crichton’s beguiling best seller; the Ben Maddow/William Rose screenplay treading very lightly on artistic license and adhering – mostly – to Crichton’s prose for inspiration. Kramer had envisioned the movie as a ‘celebration of principle and resistance’; a subtle tale of ‘one town’s indomitable spirit’ – bound, but unbreakable by the influences of the waning German stronghold after a political vacuum is created by Mussolini’s ousting from power.  While interiors were shot at Cinecittà, for authenticity the production moved to the quaint – and, as yet, untapped, cliff side village of Anticoli Corrado after it was discovered the real Santa Vittoria had long since been transformed by post-war architectural development.
Kramer would employ a fair portion of the town’s populace, working various jobs both in front of and behind the camera, the residents pooling their earnings to beautify and restore some renaissance frescos, the Romanesque National Monument and the inside of the Church of San Pietro. The movies’ centerpiece is undeniably the town’s collective endeavor to move, hide and camouflage 1,317,000 bottles of wine, thereby denying Nazi Capt. Sepp von Prum (Hardy Kruger, giving a sublime performance) his trophy to take back to Berlin. Kramer’s staging of this mass exodus of alcohol, from its warehouse to the underground catacombs, utilized 1000 extras, lined from Anticoli Corrado’s tight byways and alleys, down its steep embankment, past endless bowers of ripening grapes. It’s a magnificently staged sequence; Kramer (and Ernest Gold’s ebullient underscore) devolving from pie-eyed optimism and frenetic energy committed to such an ambitious undertaking, inevitably brought down by disquieting physical exhaustion. Many of the extras were indigenous to the region; cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno augmenting the flavor of old Italy caught in their sunburnt, gnarled, toothless and careworn faces. The movie’s main titles also give us a lay of the land; Santa Vittoria (or rather, Anticoli Corrado) and its’ inhabitants, posed and photographed through some cheesecloth; like relics recast in a forgotten, yellowing postcard. 
From this auspicious – almost historical beginning, Kramer delves into some daftly inspired screwball comedy; Santa Vittoria’s enterprising youth, Fabio (Giancarlo Giannini) racing his bicycle through the town square at dawn, ringing the church bell to alert the peasantry of Mussolini’s toppling from power. No one is particularly impressed or even interested; the town’s devil’s advocate, Babbaluche (Renato Rascel) explaining, in crass terms that the people can understand, how the local Fascist government has lost its bite and control over their lives; pointing a deliciously accusatory finger at its local representative, Francucci (Francesco Mulé) who is immediately pursued by the angry mob, easily swayed; each taking their turn in a cacophony of swift kicks, meant more to bruise the ego than harm Francucci’s ‘fat ass’. Nearby, local wine merchant, Italo Bombolini fears a similar treatment in store for him. After all, he’s been a Fascist supporter. Actually, Bombolini isn’t interested in politics at all – nor even wine; except, of course, to drink it. He’s merely keeping the peace by whatever means is necessary – a rank pacifist with a wife, Rosa whose proverbial fuse is as short as her patience.
Bombolini gets drunk and scales the local water tower where previously he had painted his message in support of Mussolini. Now, he endeavors to whitewash it out. Alas, too wasted to commit even this simple act, Bombolini must be rescued by Fabio, who ties a rope around Bombolini to bring him down safely; Rosa wringing her hands in shame from an open window as she declares in front of their daughter, Angela (Patrizia Valturri) the family name has been disgraced for all time. Ironically, all is not lost; the Fascist government surrendering on its own terms; Fabio seizing the opportunity to put forth Bombolini as Santa Vittoria’s new mayor.  The crowd, lost in the spectacle of this man’s childish folly, suddenly begins to chant their instant approval. Alas, Bombolini hasn’t the faintest notion how to be a great politico - or even a competent one, for that matter. Bombolini is racked with insecurities, shouted out of his own house by Rosa whom Babbaluche suggests needs to have Italo’s fist buried in her face to shut her up.
In the meantime, Angela makes it known to both parents that her…uh… ‘juices’ are flowing for Fabio. Bombolini is outraged, Angela’s comical declaration of her own womanhood, vigorously massaging her breasts in the town square, causing Bombolini to accuse Rosa of not explaining the facts of life to their daughter. Rosa attempts to dissuade Angela from her romantic folly by illustrating a particular part of the male anatomy, using two apples and a stalk of celery, to which Angela confidently explains she already knows about. To quash the slightest chance his new appointment as Santa Vittoria’s mayor will be short-lived, Bombolini appoints the ousted fascists as figureheads in his new administration; garnering their reluctant support. Fabio elects to leave Santa Vittoria to pursue his studies in Rome. However, once in the big city, Fabio discovers the Nazis are planning an all-out annexation of Italy. Santa Vittoria will fall in a matter of days; its vast storehouse of wine exported to Berlin.
To prevent the inevitable, Fabio returns to Santa Vittoria, employing ex-fascist army deserter, Tufa (Sergio Franchi) to help him concoct a plan of action. Tufa has been hurt in his escape, Bombolini urging the sultry Contessa Caterina Malatesta (Virna Lisi), considered something of a social outcast, but also a very competent nurse, to tend his wounds. Tufa suggests the wine be moved to the town’s abandoned underground caves. But Bombolini’s first orchestration of this mass exodus proves a chaotic nightmare. Tufa reorganizes the people into four human chains running parallel the full distance from the winery warehouse to the caves far below the city; Bombolini working the villagers around the clock with only fifteen minute respites until the task is completed. Babbaluche suggests a little over 300,000 bottles be left in the stockpile for the Germans to discover, the logic being they will not look for the missing million if they are led to believe there is no more wine in Santa Vittoria. It’s a clever ruse, readily agreed upon by Bombolini and Tufa. Hence, when Capt. Sepp von Prum arrives with his military escort he is slightly amused to discover Bombolini so bumbling and…well…accommodating. Rosa isn’t nearly as pleasant, ordering von Prum out of her establishment and incurring his considerable displeasure.
Bombolini manages to pull the wool over von Prum’s eyes; the Nazi captain accepting the tally of a little over 300,000 bottles and bartering back and forth as to how much of this stockpile will be left behind in Santa Vittoria.  Sometime later, Angela sneaks off to Fabio’s bedroom in the dead of night, her inveigling him into a consummation thwarted by Rosa, who nearly wakes up the whole town, informing Bombolini of their clandestine rendezvous. In reply, Bombolini proposes a shotgun wedding that comes off without a hitch. In the interim, the Contessa and Tufa have also become passionate lovers, their hot and heavy romance complicated twofold; first, by Tufa forced to remain concealed to spare his own execution as a deserter, and second, by von Prum who has since developed his own voluptuous interests, desiring Caterina for his own.
Von Prum’s orchestrated seduction over a candle-lit dinner is thwarted by the arrival of S.S. officer, Cpl. Heinsick (Chris Anders) who informs von Prum there are more than a million unaccounted bottles listed in the winery’s record-keeping ledger. Pummeling Bombolini to make him confess their whereabouts, the Nazis instead get nowhere fast and are forced to conduct an exhaustive search of the city, only to come up empty-handed. Von Prum uses repeated threats, but to no avail. He also decides a show of force is necessary; electing to assassinate two people from the village to prove his point, forcing Bombolini to choose the victims. Thinking quickly, Bombolini advocates fate choose the intended at random, thereby absolving him of the burden of their deaths – merely, the first two people who enter the town square will be killed. Von Prum agrees, Babbaluche and Tufa scurrying to release a pair of hardcore fascists; Copa (Quinto Parmeggiani) and Dr. Bara (Pino Ferrara) who they’ve been keeping under lock and key  thus far, under the pretext the Germans have come to liberate them.
Von Prum discovers Tufa in Caterina’s bed, taking Tufa hostage and exclaiming for the whole town to hear, that unless someone reveals the ‘secret’ of Santa Vittoria, Tufa will be assassinated at daybreak by a firing squad. That evening, von Prum takes out his sexual frustrations on Caterina. She allows the rape to occur in trade for Tufa’s life. Von Prum releases Tufa, receiving orders from the Nazi high command to evacuate Santa Vittoria immediately – wine or no wine. Having turned up nothing, von Prum prepares to leave. He does, however, make one last stab not to depart the town empty-handed, threatening to shoot Bombolini in the head. Remembering what Rosa said earlier, about his brains being in his ass rather than his head’ Bombolini decides to defy von Prum for what, presumably, will be his last time. To add insult to injury, he offers von Prum a single bottle of wine – the only one he’ll be taking from the village now that his orders have been rescinded. Disgusted with his own failure, von Prum departs, the town breaking into impromptu celebration; a buoyant good riddance to their captors.
At 140 minutes, and, in the era of the road show, The Secret of Santa Vittoria ought to have clicked – if not with audiences, then most definitely as a charming, if fanciful, little fable set near the end of WWII; yielding some beguiling vignettes, superb acting and exquisitely lush travelogue visuals. Alas, it all remains fairly transparent and only marginally captivating on a whole. Stanley Kramer has difficulties keeping the narrative taut and on target – or rather, moving in a smooth narrative arc from points ‘A’ to ‘B’ with all letters of the alphabet momentarily intervening between. Kramer is cribbing from an exceptional source – also, a fairly competent script. But he’s somehow unable to keep the various secondary threads in play without distracting us from the central story. The Secret of Santa Vittoria is really a tale about two male rams locking horns; Hardy Kruger’s urbane and emotionally complex Nazi stooge pitted against Anthony Quinn’s even more complicated/slovenly and emasculated boob.   Kruger’s von Prum is the more satisfying of the two performances, his calm, cool and collected uber-aristocrat imploding as an eye-twitching, joyously perturbed fop, overcome by his own kneejerk vexations.
The romantic maneuverings between Fabio and Angela, Rosa and Bombolini, Tufa and Caterina, are meant to augment our appreciation for these private lives. Instead, this trifecta of imperfect relationships proves a hindrance; Kramer unable to make up his mind whether these intimate affairs are the crux or the cream of his jest. Characters drift in, then out of this revolving door, also the director’s focus; the Maddow/Rose screenplay problematically juggling the WWII ‘secret’ wine scenario with the aforementioned couples in love. After Fabio and Angela are married, as example, the movie all but loses interest in them.
Kramer’s salvation is, of course, his pacing: as with his brilliant use of the cutaway from the moment Anna reveals to Bombolini their daughter is having an adulterous affair with Fabio. Bombolini declaring he will punish the boy so he will always remember it; Kramer juxtaposing this stern declaration with a shot of Fabio and Angela emerging from the chapel as happily joined newlyweds, presumably at the point of a gun. At moments such as this, Stanley Kramer gives us a pluperfect blend of earnest drama and nimble comedy with his own peerless light touch that can sell almost anything as both entertainment and high art.
Alas, there aren’t enough moments such as this in the movie. The middle act of The Secret of Santa Vittoria suffers from too much exposition and not enough intrigue; also, an absence of the aforementioned comedy. It’s odd, because Kramer suddenly seems only to be interested in getting to the juicy parts near the end, forgetting the connective tissue of any great movie must function as more than the obligatory link from one great scene to the next. Mercifully, Kramer is blessed by the cursed backstage animosity between Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani; adept chameleons who pivot between electric bits of conflict and some sincerely amusing glimpses into their all but forgotten romantic past. Quinn and Magnani walk this tightrope with grace, humor and a modicum of wicked double-entendre. They’re a joyously satisfying combination on the screen, even if their backstage association was less than conciliatory.
In the final analysis, The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a minor work by Stanley Kramer, its scope somewhat diminished by the director’s inability to give us everything he has; the success of the movie resting squarely on Quinn and Magnani’s shoulders. In retrospect, she seems better equipped for the heavy lifting; Quinn (who made a career playing lusty Mediterranean males with plenty of old world charm and foibles) merely content to phone in another performance, cut from the same tapestry in his acting repertoire. The movie is populated by other fine performances too; Hardy Kruger’s impassioned Nazi; Renato Rascel’s village sage, on occasion masquerading as its idiot; Giancarlo Giannini’s astute youth (all but discarded in the movie’s second act – a shame) and Sergio Franchi’s stern patriot (more a lover than a fighter). These are expertly crafted and meant to keep The Secret of Santa Vittoria afloat even as Stanley Kramer struggles to maintain basic narrative cohesion during his middle act. They do click, even when the movie doesn’t, forming a distracting daisy-chain around its dithering plot.
MGM/Fox’s 1080p transfer via Twilight Time boasts a sublime palette: rich hues, sun-kissed oranges, earthy browns, lush greens and eye-popping sky blues. There are a few, fleeting moments where the DeLuxe color temperature wildly shifts from warm to cool, and one or two instances of some minor wobble, most likely caused by gate weave. I’ll pause a moment to point to another truly curious anomaly; white sliver-like scratches, randomly running on a diagonal plain from left to right. At first, I thought it was the remnants of a rain shower, occurring as they did during an outdoor sequence where the villagers await the arrival of the Nazis around the 72 min. mark, and, immediately following a scene where actual rain had been falling.
Good continuity on Kramer’s part, I thought.  Alas, when this same anomaly reappeared in the middle of an indoor scene at approximately 121 min., I suddenly realized it had nothing to do with continuity or the natural elements. Is it distracting? Hmmm. On smaller monitors, arguably no. Actually, I didn’t mind it on my 42inch display. Blown up to 85 inches on my other monitor, it became a minor, but forgivable nuisance. Only in projection does it prove fairly annoying. Again, this oddity only occurs twice in the film and for only a very brief few minutes.     
The pluses here are overall image stability; also pitch-perfect contrast, and some truly absorbing depth and clarity with a modicum of film grain accurately reproduced. The original mono is presented in 1.0 DTS and remains remarkably robust. Dialogue is clearly represented and Ernest Gold’s score sounds fantastic. As expected, Twilight Time gives us Gold’s music on an isolated score; also, a theatrical trailer, with TT’s resident scribe/author and historian, Julie Kirgo’s offering some keen observations on the liner notes. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

1

No comments: