DVD Reviews
By Ray Young


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De Sica, Sophia and Marcello: Three Films

Vittorio, Loren and Mastroianni on Blu-ray


    Sophia Loren and Vittorio De Sica were part of a vital moment in popular Italian cinema, when the hugely profitable American market was temporarily open and eager for European imports, when a lot of people were confused by Federico Fellini or wary of Roberto Rossellini. In the neorealist masterpieces Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951) and Umberto D. (1952), De Sica (and writer Cesare Zavattini) worked from the gut, emotionally driven and confidently middlebrow (they knew how to tug at the heartstrings), and Sophia was… well, Sophia, her braless 38C breasts joyfully bouncing through De Sica’s The Gold of Naples (1954), the drop-dead-gorgeous twenty-year-old igniting a spark in the filmmaker, who’d do wonders for her career six years later with Two Women (1960), earning her an Oscar and a lifetime of international fame.

    Kino Lorber has released both a Blu-ray bundle and a DVD set of three of their pictures together under the title ‘The Sophia Loren Award Collection,’ and any one of them would go well with a bottle of Chianti and a hearty serving of spaghetti and meatballs: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), Marriage Italian Style (1964), and Sunflower (1970). All co-star Marcello Mastroianni, whose good looks, sly humor and impeccable manner made him a perfect partner for Sophia. Their combined beauty now looks razor-sharp on Blu-ray, especially considering that these films fell to decay over the years and were available in cut, weathered, dubbed, pan-and-scan versions. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow had surfaced as a restored DVD in 2005 from NoShame Films, but went out of print almost immediately when the company folded shortly after.

    As fashions and styles come and go, post-GenXers who only know her from Grumpier Old Men (1995) or Rob Marshall’s Nine (2009) may scratch their heads over Sophia’s record as a reigning sex symbol, but to these eyes she’s still a voluptuous goddess, and a good actor under all that eyeliner and mascara. In De Sica’s contribution to the amorphous subgenre of omnibus sketch movies which came trickling out of Italy and France during the 1960s, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow casts her in three vignettes, playing three separate characters who are anchored and guided by family, fortune and impulsive behavior. An Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, it was a box office smash in America thanks primarily to Sophia’s relentlessly hyped striptease number, a bit of erotic iconography that became nearly as famous as Marilyn and her dress billowing over the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (1955).

Click the image to enlarge

    Like most everyone of previous generations, De Sica was prone to what would now be regarded as ethnic profiling, and the first part of the film is set in the loud and lusty village of Forcella in Naples, its impassioned working class a blur of comical raucousness, derogatory gestures (everyone speaks with their hands), nonexistent birth control, and vast amounts of starchy, fatty foods. Sophia plays an earthy housewife who can avoid a stint in debtor’s prison by staying pregnant, constantly pregnant, a setup that could’ve netted nothing more than a predictable sitcom were it not for her rowdy performance and De Sica’s genteel handling of her domestic scenes with a droll, taciturn Marcello.

    De Sica juxtaposes a primitive south with upscale northern decadence in the chilly Today portion, Sophia now a rich, bored housewife decked out in Christian Dior, driving aimlessly in her Rolls, contemplating an extramarital fling with a visibly unimpressed Marcello. While far from subtle, De Sica does avoid the steamroller approach later used by Lina Wertmüller in Swept Away (1974) to illustrate the chasm between Italy’s economic classes, interpreting their politics in uncomplicated terms with his sympathies running to the have-nots.

    At which point you may ask, “Hey, where’s the striptease?” Ever the showman, De Sica saves the money shot for last, though why this segment represents Tomorrow is anyone’s guess. He opens on a sunny afternoon, a beautifully tan Sophia cavorting around a rooftop in nothing but a bath towel, her flowing locks sun blanched, her wide smile and almond-shaped eyes seemingly justifying the very invention of Panavision. She juggles a hootin,’ hollerin’ and horny Marcello with the solemn young neighbor preparing for the priesthood, her mind torn between getting it on with one of the world’s best looking men or hunkering down in the confessional with God.

Marriage Italian Style

    Critics — the serious ones, at least — were then extolling the Italian New Wave of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962); Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963); and Lucino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963). But in terms of popularity, those films barely made it out of the art houses and museums. With Two Women and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, De Sica enjoyed prosperous runs in mainstream theatres, thanks in large part to Joseph E. Levine’s savvy marketing campaigns in the States. They hit paydirt again with Marriage Italian Style, earning two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Film and Best Actress for Sophia), for a romantic epic spanning the tumultuous twenty-two year relationship between a retired hooker and her callous, vain sugar daddy.

    Based on the play Filumena Marturano by Eduardo De Filippo, De Sica presumably changed the title to cash in on Pietro Germi’s earlier hit, Divorce Italian Style (1961), which it bears absolutely no relation to. He bypasses a potentially messy analytical approach to the characters, never scrutinizing their damaging self esteem issues, thereby whittling them into alternately amusing and pathetic caricatures martyring their way through unstable lives. Elements of Fellini’s La Strada (1954) — the yin and yang of the strong over the meek and vice versa — are artfully blended with varying degrees of comedy, pathos and saccharine asides to children and family, but De Sica manipulates us mostly through the gorgeousness and magnetism of his stars. You could say that Sophia never looked better than she does here, but that sentiment honestly applies to a dozen of her pictures. As an actor, she flourished under his sensitive guidance.

Original poster art for Sunflower

    At which point, De Sica fell out of sync with ‘the Sixties’ and its sundry innovations. His next picture, The New World (1966) barely saw release out of Europe; filmed in English, After the Fox (1966) was a bland Peter Sellers comedy; Woman Times Seven (1967) had Shirley MacLaine in seven middling stories about adultery; and A Place for Lovers (1968), a picture made strictly for the money (in some stations, De Sica was more famous for his gambling debts than his films), offered an unconvincing romantic pair of Marcello and Faye Dunaway. Likewise, as a new dawn of filmmaking came into view, he fell out of favor with the critics. Bicycle Thieves, once counted among the great all time classics, fell off of Sight & Sound’s Top 10 Critics’ Poll, where it held the #1 position in 1952 and #7 in 1962.

    During this gray period — and before he’d reclaim prominence with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) — De Sica reunited Sophia and Marcello for Sunflower, an old fashioned romance using World War II as a backdrop. Sadly, it feels forced and routine, even though the performances and Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography are generally excellent; and Henry Mancini’s score (nominated for an Oscar) is pleasant, albeit repetitious. But the script is banal, its situations and characters not far removed from daytime soaps, an anemic work inexplicably credited to three writers, among them the brilliant Tonino Guerra, better known for Antonioni’s L’Avventura, La Notte (1961) and Blow-Up (1966), and Fellini’s Amarcord (1973).

    A bonus included with the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Blu-ray and as part of the DVD set is the 90-minute documentary, Vittorio D. (2009). Directed by Mario Canale and Annarosa Morri, veterans of earlier documentaries on Marcello Mastroianni and Marco Ferreri, it gathers De Sica’s children, friends, coworkers in the Italian cinema and British and American admirers, including Paul Mazursky, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Woody Allen and Shirley MacLaine, who reminisce about his films as both director and actor, his home life, gambling and political beliefs. (A communist, De Sica believed in the ‘socialism of Jesus Christ.’) It also addresses De Sica’s legacy, of which John Landis, of all people, provides an accurate summation that’s particularly refreshing.

  • Order the Sophia Loren Blu-ray Bundle from Kino International

  • Order the Sophia Loren DVD Box Set from Kino International