It's amazing to think that Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow - this week's selection in The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" - came from Italian auteur Vittorio De Sica. De Sica is perhaps best known to cinephiles as one of, if not the, leading figure of the Italian neorealist movement in postwar Italy. His films, such as Bicycle Thieves (1948), often had child protagonist, cast amateur actors, and were set in the lower classes of Italian society. Though director Federico Fellini would be inspired and influenced by De Sica, it's worth noting that his upper-class fantasias - La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), most famously - stand in marked contrast to De Sica's, making the two towering luminaries of Italian cinema seemingly stand on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Yet here's Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, a three-part anthology film of sex comedies directed by De Sica with expensive production values and two of Italy's biggest movie stars, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. I don't mean for this to sound like I'm crying "Judas!;" on the contrary, the film is an absolute delight, each vignette perfecting recasting the dual leads and making the most of their explosive chemistry and superstar charisma. It's just interesting to make the comparison, especially since anyone who's taken film classes will likely only know De Sica as a figurehead of a major cinematic movement.
The challenge for this edition of "Hit Me..." was to either pick one shot from each story, or pick just one story. I'm going to take on all three, since it would be nearly impossible to pick just one of these vignettes to write about.
More after the jump.
I. "Adelina of Naples"
The film's first and longest vignette casts Mastroianni and Loren as married couple Carmine and Adelina, who live in the poorer parts of Naples. Adelina is in trouble with the law for her illegally-imported cigarette business, but a local lawyer informs the couple that the police cannot arrest her as long as she's pregnant (with a six-month nursing period after childbirth). Cue the couple's master plan to be perpetually expecting, eventually ending up with a brood of seven young children before Carmine is completely exhausted. His failure to impregnate her again leads to a difficult question: does Adelina become impregnated by Carmine's friend Pasquale (Aldo Giuffre), or does she face incarceration for not being able to pay her fine?
"Adelina of Naples" keeps the comedy running, including a gleeful almost-musical number where a pack of children run through the streets chant "she's expecting!" while the score turns into a peppy march. There's a terrific heightened reality to the way that De Sica stages these scenes, accenting the idea of this community coming together for one another no matter what the circumstances. And despite the illegality of Adelina's business, it sure seems to be a popular way to make a living:
Yet it's not all laughs, as the story is grounded in very real stakes: Adelina could be taken from her children and sent to prison. And, in fact, that is exactly what happens in the film's emotional crux: she can't bring herself to sleep with Pasquale, and ends up in a women's penitentiary. Though of course the story has a happy ending, it leads to some of the film's most powerful images, such as this one of Adelina standing at the window, listening to her husband's news of filing a petition for her pardon:
When she does learn the news of her pardon, she's told that she has been forgiven. De Sica frames this moment through the bars of her shared cell, and it's surely no coincidence that the shadows of the bars form a cross upon her face:
It's not the only time the film flirts with the ties between love and religion, but it's the most delectable image that brings them together. You could even call it a miracle. Adelina has atoned for her sins, and now has been granted possibly-divine forgiveness. More than anything, though, it's just a great image.
And speaking of...
This is from an earlier moment in the vignette, when Adelina is ready for yet another child. The exasperation on Carmine's face is priceless; he may be the only person in history to dread sleeping with Sophia Loren.
II. "Anna of Milan"
The film's second vignette is also its shortest, focusing on Anna (Loren), the wife of an industrial magnate, and her writer lover Renzo (Mastroianni). They meet in her Rolls Royce, taking a trip into the country together for a rendezvous. But it's clear that Anna and Renzo have very different worldviews, and those differences are beginning to take a toll on their relationship.
This vignette perhaps feels the most like De Sica's earlier films, beginning with point-of-view shots through the streets of Milan and narration by Anna on her way to pick up Renzo. At first, the camera either sits in the backseat as a silent third-party observer or frames one character apart from the other, illustrating the divide between the lovers even though they're sitting right next to each other.
In this vignette, De Sica also makes interesting use of a fog motif, which makes the screen more translucent and reduces the quality of the images. This is done with an actual rolling fog in the story's third act, but it works memorably in one of the few scenes of the couple together in a "loving" position:
Notice the look on Renzo's face: he's clearly not fully embracing the situation, even though Anna is making advances. That the glare of the window taints the clarity of the image ironically works to clarify our interpretation: these two have been ignoring each other's true selves, and while Renzo's beginning to see who Anna really is (the camera begins this sequence on Renzo's side of the car, with a clear image), Anna is still lost in the fog of lust.
Once the couple ends up in a car accident, their split becomes inevitable. Anna hails down another driver to come to her aid, while Renzo steps away from her. The above shot demonstrates their irreparable divide: Anna has ensnared her new conquest, while Renzo watches from the distance. There's no fog here; the end of their affair is as clear as day.
III. "Mara of Rome"
Of all the vignettes in this film, "Mara of Rome" stands out for being both the funniest and the most sensual. The first point comes largely from Mastroianni, who plays Augusto with such neurotic energy that he seems more like a hyperactive puppy than a man. He's practically bouncing off the walls with lust for Mara, eager to get in bed with her while she tries to handle the problem with Umberto. It's a hilarious dynamic, made all the more effective by the chemistry between the two. Loren makes it clear that Mara has a deep affection for Augusto, even when he's explaining the romantic lighting of the refrigerator or performing a little burlesque number while Mara attempts to write a letter.
His perpetual horniness pervades the entire segment, with De Sica consistently framing Mara as an object of desire without ever reducing her to a mere object. She has a warm, rich inner life, and Loren plays those notes brilliantly. But the whole vignette - the climax of the entire movie - culminates in Mara performing a striptease for Augusto, now that everything is back to normal:
The most striking thing about this scene is how incredibly arousing and erotic it is without ever resorting to actual sex or nudity. The heat is in Loren's seductive movements and explosive chemistry with Mastroianni, whose Augusto is perched on the bed like a small child waiting anxiously for a piece of candy. Even though its played equally for laughs, it's a scene infinitely hotter than anything in most contemporary films, with a resolution that absolutely slays in its hilarity and emotional impact. More than anything, it's proof that, with the right actors, the sex is in their chemistry, not in the act itself.
Eat your heart out, Hollywood.