Missing the Mark, Italian Style

Viva Italia! directed by Mario Monicelli, Dino Risi, and Ettore Scola at the Orson Welles

EVERY NOW AND THEN a film comes along that arouses a good deal of disagreement among both critics and the general audience. The axiom holds true for films, as for everything else, that which one man loves may well sicken another. This sort of critical and public debate should be encouraged; after all, it makes for a better-informed audience and we can only hope that a better-informed audience will demand and eventually get better films.

But I cannot understand how anyone could give Viva Italia! a favorable review. Now, your run-of-the-mill jerk armed with a typewriter might praise anything, seemingly at random--but when some of your big names, like, for example, Vincent Canby, give a film a good review, you usually figure it must have something going for it. Viva Italia! might, indeed, have something going for it, but other than a few good sequences, I couldn't possibly find them. This ostensible comedy is the worst, most offensive legitimate film I have seen in a long time I can only repeat what my companion muttered as we left the theater: "I knew Italy had problems, but I didn't know it was this bad."

Viva Italia! consists of a series of nine brief vignettes, which taken together appear to reflect the current condition of social humor in Italy. Or at least the directorial triumvirate's conception of what Italians think is funny. But the big problem is that very little in the film is actually amusing, and much of it is either revolting, childish, or well outside any reasonable bounds of humor, no matter how sick.

For example, I don't know of too many people who find terrorism all that funny. But, in a sequence that I suppose is meant to be a comment on the Italian social condition (none too great, these days), a strange man (Yorgo Voyagis) who doesn't speak Italian, French or English spots and subsequently seduces a radiantly beautiful Alitalia stewardess (Ornella Muti, the best thing about this film). The next morning, as she is about to board her plane, he rushes up to her, embraces her and then gives her a tape recorder playing the tune to which he had whisked her off her feet the night before. Cut to a bar, where our man casually watches the television, which announces that an Alitalia jet with 86 people aboard had just blown up after take-off, probably due to a terrorist bomb planted on the craft planted on the craft just prior to fateful departure. Ho ho ho. Certainly this is no stab at humor, but even as a piece of wry social comment, it still fails. Isn't Starsky and Hutch enough?

NOT ALL of the scenes bomb so badly, no pun intended, but there are a few others that fail both as incisive social commentary and as humor. In a sequence near the end of the film, a waiter at a rustic country restaurant with a ritzy clientele gets involved in a grotesque food fight in the kitchen with the chef, who turns out to be his lover. The slapstick technique employed here went out of vogue in America at about the same time that Hal Roach stopped making Spanky and Our Gang films. After all, squids perched atop the suddenly toupee-less head of a middle-aged man are not necessarily funny. Nor is the scene in which a couple dickers with a sleazy film producer over a role in a pornographic film. As the scene unfolds, it becomes clear that the female in the dirty movie will have to, er, "do it with a monkey." But surprise, kids, the couple agrees to the contract, and the twist is revealed; the woman won't be in the film, rather, the actress will be their ten-year-old daughter. You could split your sides laughing, but you probably won't.


In all fairness, though, Viva Italia! does have a couple of good scenes among the tasteless dreck that compounds the greater part of this 90-minute exercise in self-discipline (it took a lot of selfdiscipline to remain in my seat). Alberto Sordi comes up with a truly funny bit as the sybaritic driver of a Rolls-Royce, who encounters an accident victim lying in the road. Although this idly rich fellow is on his way to a family dinner, he is willing to take the poor victim to the hospital. Unfortunately, no hospital will take the dude, and while Sordi prattles on hysterically about nothing and everything, the wretch expires on the front seat, which he is rather nastily staining with his blood. Finally, Sordi drops him off where he found him. Vittorio Gassman also comes up with a good scene, playing a Roman Catholic cardinal stranded by an automotive failure at a small parish church, where an angry group of beefy peasants is busy arguing over something or other. Gassman extricates himself splendidly, laying a little bit of that old-time religion on the masses and then quickly heading out the side door when his car is waiting.

As with any foreign film, Viva Italia! has a tremendous problem, as very few people in the audience can actually comprehend the dialogue. Italian is such a rapid-fire language that, despite the presence of fairly complete subtitles, you cannot help but feel that you are missing a lot of what might actually be funny. But probably isn't, in this case.

Finally, the humor of one nation is not necessarily funny to the folk of a very different country. True, Americans have always been suckers for British humor, but there's a common cultural bond there; that bond is much weaker with regard to Italy. It is a strange and deeply troubled nation, small wonder then that its filmmakers should present such a dark vision. But while that vision might, possibly--just maybe--have some social significance, the flaws that pervade Viva Italia! make it hardly worthwhile, save for the hardiest Italophile. No one needs to offended, bored, and bewildered; at least no one should have to pay for that privilege, even if Vincent Canby tells them to.

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