The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) dir. Stanley Kramer

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Fermented grape juice is a special kind of elixir, hell even Shakespeare was a fan of crushing a cup and some, one could argue, might go to extreme lengths for a glass of vino, maybe even a bottle… or million. Stanley Kramer’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria opens with Fabio (Giancarlo Giannini) rushing home to deliver good news, il Duce has been ousted from the NFP. Sadly, the young man’s enthusiasm isn’t met in quite the way he was hoping as most of Santa Vittoria does not understand what the end of Fascism means for them but Mussolini has gone and the Germans are on their way, led by Captain von Prum (Hardy Krüger) and will take whatever they like.

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The film is set in a generic wine-producing region of Italy (in approximately 1943 although made some 25 years later) where the men drink and their wives are seen but generally not heard, a real “Boys Club”. Bombolini (Anthony Quinn) is one man whose wife, Rosa (Anna Magnani) insists on being heard. She runs the inn with her husband and is at the end of her rope; she loved him once but cannot remember exactly when. He’s well liked amongst the other hard-drinkers and they encourage him to put “a fist in her mouth” mainly because “it’s a sad house when the cock is silent and the hen does all the crowing.” Ah, domestic violence is hilarious, isn’t it? Especially when a film normalises women hitting men but the threat against women is somehow more shocking. To be fair, neither gender comes off particularly well. Fragile masculinity is personified in Quinn’s Bombolini, he is – not to put too finer point on it – an idiot and the townspeople make him Mayor *because* he’s a fool which bodes well. Predictably, the title and gold medallion leads the clown to think he’s arrived, and Rosa will suddenly become obedient. Almost immediately, we realise this is not the case but he does cease drinking and successfully hides the bulk of the fruits of their labour/vinification.

There are a couple of subplots which largely deal with the love lives of three female characters: Signora Rosa, Caterina (Virna Lisa) – who returns to the village after the death of her Fascist husband but then falls in love with injured soldier Tufa (Sergio Franchi) whom she nurses back to health, and who also happens to be a Fascist. However, as he’s a peasant from Santa Vittoria she’s willing to turn a blind-eye. Rounding off the trio is Rosa and Italo’s daughter, Angela (Patrizia Valturri). She’s in love with Fabio but is only interested in sex, not marriage.

One of the major niggles with The Secret of Santa Vittoria is it hasn’t aged well. Its politics are muddled and archaic, it never leads with a message or knows exactly what it wants to say, it does pick up pace – how the townspeople shift the million bottles of wine is quite something albeit disbelief suspending – and the jaunty and affable score is enjoyable but none of it is affecting, surprising or particularly spontaneous. It functions as a huge Hollywood production, structured to within an inch of its life. It isn’t a musical but would have worked very well as one.

The saving grace is Anna Magnani, in her last English-speaking role. Her powerful demeanour and beautiful imperious face never falters; it’s worth watching all the way through just to see that world-class grimace break into a grin. She was a stunning actress and here makes the most of the material given – by no means a stretch – she’s wonderful as the tough and feisty Rosa, the only downside is she’s not given nearly enough screen time.

The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a pleasant, mostly entertaining fare; perfect Sunday afternoon viewing, with, of course, a nice glass of red.

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Tale of Tales (2015) dir. Matteo Garrone

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Long, long ago there lived a Queen (Salma Hayek); a desperate, seemingly infertile Queen who wished for a child more than anything. Her husband, the King (John C. Reilly) would (and does) do anything to make his love happy and provide her with the child she so yearns, and so begins Matteo Garrone’s (Reality, Gomorrah) first English language feature Tale of Tales. The tone of which is set from the very beginning as the King of Longtrellis wades into water to slay the sea monster and pluck out its heart thus providing his beloved with the bloody, and delicious, means to conception and the shortest gestation period ever. His untimely demise brings the neighbouring Kings; sex-crazed libertine Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) and sweet melancholic Highhills (Toby Jones) to the funeral procession, and all three kingdoms merge, intersect and ultimately influence the other as the triptych of tales unfurl, some sixteen years later.

Queenie is now mother to a teenage albino Elias (Christian Lees) – taking on the colouring of the sea beast – and who is spending a lot more time with his identical twin brother from another mother, Jonah (Jonah Lees). The Royal mother is overcome with envy as the two boys; one princely, one a pauper make adventures of their own.

Strongcliff is a skin-crawling, somewhat beastly Don Juan-type whom women seem to grow tired of very quickly. Looking for another distraction, he hears a beautiful ToT7singing voice and follows it, mistaking an old crone (played respectively by Hayley Carmichael and Stacy Martin) for a beautiful Princess and so begins an obsessive courtship, of sorts, (through a door) chaperoned by her equally wrinkled sister Imma (Shirley Henderson).

ToT4Highhills is a widower who as his only daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) matures becomes more attached to a flea than the fruit of his loins, and when said pet passes on (respiratory issues) provides a fun guessing game, the prize of which is the hand of Violet. Step forward the Ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) and the poor Princess is whisked away, under duress, to what essentially is a hole in a mountain.

While the majority of audiences – whether filmic and/or literary – will recognise the conventions, motifs, metaphors, plots and characters of the traditional fairy tale, they may even attribute to the Brothers Grimm. However, without putting too finer point on it; the Italians came first. Straparola inspired Giambattista Basile, upon whose tales –The Enchanted Doe, The Flea, and The Old Woman Who Was Skinned– this film is loosely based. In his work, Basile, deployed the loquacious gifts of female storytellers while Garrone adapts to forefront the role of women in his carnivalesque cinematic tale for they all can be read as rebellious females manipulating their surroundings and fashioning their own fates.

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The film is a real feast for the eyes combining the Italian setting with baroque beauty, brimming with flamboyant metaphors which render Tale of Tales as sitting somewhere between repulsive and hilarious. Garrone clearly appreciates the richness, diversity and complexity of the fairy tale, especially those from his motherland. It intrigues, has much to say on the power of civility and transformation and is completely wicked and highly pleasurable. Not least due to its direction but the special visual effects (practical, digital art, props) and ageing prosthetics, provided by mAKINARIUm are outstanding, as is Massimo Cantini Parrini’s gorgeous and sumptuous costuming; fit for any Royal. Alexandre Desplat delivers a dreamy score, expressive in tone and timbre which really lifts and enhances those darker moments.

ToT5Tale of Tales is a charming curio – dark, gruesome and mirthful; a transgressive grotesquery, thematically rich, irreverent and unctuous. Those fiabe that we hold dear as children are just as important to us as adults, and when they are as wonderfully made as this, even better.

And they all lived happily ever after…yeah right.