The Anthology Series is a roundtable column here at 4:3 where we look at the oft-overlooked genre of anthology films. Also known as portmanteaus, the anthology film is composed of a series of short films grouped together by theme or some awkward overarching premise. Some of the more popular portmanteaus in recent memory include Paris, je t’aime and horror anthology series V/H/S. There are also anthology films done by the same director, think Love Actually, Argentian Oscar-nominee Wild Tales and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. For the purposes of this column, we will be focusing on anthology films with more than two directors.
In this entry in the series, Jake Moody and Brad Mariano talk about the 1962 film Boccaccio ’70, a look at love and sex in Italy from four of the country’s most celebrated directors.
Jake: First off, I think Boccaccio ’70 represents an interesting subgenre of the already elusive anthology film that we haven’t really explored yet, being one of the multi-segment pieces turned out by big-name European directors in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Looking at the incredible line-up in this – as far as I’m concerned, Visconti, Fellini, Monicelli and de Sica is four for four – and films like Ro.Go.Pa.G. and Far from Vietnam, featuring Godard, Rossellini, Lelouch, Pasolini, Marker and more between them, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that could entice similarly renowned filmmakers to share screen time today. Another question I have is about the title. While I’d be lying if I claimed to know much about the 14th-century poet Giovanni Boccaccio, I think that there’s a pretty clear English-language analogue in Geoffrey Chaucer, both medieval writers still revered for their often bawdy naturalism. On the other hand, I presume the ‘70’ to refer to the year of production, but no – it was made in 1962. I noticed that one of the participants, Mario Monicelli, made a film three years after this one called Casanova 70, presumably using the year suffix in a similar way. Maybe there was a trend in Italian cinema to name allegorical works in this way, forecasting the ways in which social trends would be projected into the next decade. It seems bizarre, but does seem to rhyme nicely with some of the out-there elements of modernism encapsulated by the first two segments particularly.
Brad: You’re right to point to this particular period of time as a hotbed of anthology films, particularly in Italy. From meta marvels like Siamo donne (a collection of quasi non-fiction segments about actresses – including Ingrid Bergman and Anna Magnani – playing caricatures of themselves) to real mixed bags like Capriccio all’Italiana or the Silvana Mangano-starring The Witches, there’s an incredible number of these films whose existence is hard to explain – at best, the collaborative nature of these projects likely attracted major artists to explore themes through their own idiosyncratic art; at worst, it feels like cynical producers cashing in on the name value auteurs held at this point in time in the collective public consciousness. Sometimes both are apparent in the same film. I also agree with you on the connection with Chaucer in this instance – Italian iconoclast Pier Paolo Pasolini of course would adapt both authors’ most known works as part of his Trilogy of Life films, The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, both of which play out very similarly, and I can’t think of a better way to describe it than your term of ‘bawdy naturalism’. But to make this explicit, these films and writings were about sex, and that’s the connection to the title for me, in addition to the style of Boccaccio – The Decameron is in anthology format, and that literary ancestry appears to me why the anthology was so popular in Italian cinema, as that influence can be traced through not just these multi-auteur projects but in major works by some of the country’s most renowned film artists – Rossellini’s Paisan and L’Amore, Vittorio De Sica’s L’Oro di Napoli and even later Fellini films like Roma and Amarcord seem indebted to this tradition. So with the spirit of Boccaccio transported to a more ‘decent’ modern era, what did you make of the films?
Jake: It seems like a travesty that “Renzo e Luciana” was the short controversially cut from Boccaccio, when it serves as such a charming, if maybe safe, introduction to the anthology. Without the draw of an A-list actress – see Schneider, Loren, Ekberg in the other segments – Monicelli’s short feels more like a representative piece of neo-realist Sixties Roman fetishism than any of the others, and thereby probably the one which most honestly buys into the premise of the wider film. And anyway, Marisa Solinas as Luciana is as captivating as any of the other leads. Having not seen any of Monicelli’s other work, I can’t comment on its proximity to his typical style, but the opening segment owes a pretty major debt to other Italian workplace satires, most noticeable Olmi’s Il Posto. The comedy of modern social/sexual mores headbutting against the strictures of postwar Italy’s burgeoning professional economy makes for some sharp visual moments. The set design in this segment is the best of the lot, which is saying something in a film featuring a Visconti short. Renzo and Luciana’s drab office, and the swimming pool where she’s accosted by her obnoxious boss, are constructed of strange, almost futuristic curves and concrete/acrylic textures. While 45 minutes isn’t really enough to explore the potential that these ideas hold, as an anthology opener, I think Monicelli sticks wholly to the spirit of the project here.
Brad: I agree, and I can only guess that this film’s omission from broader theatrical releases comes to down to that idea of branding and name value and an unwillingness to take a chance on a 3+ hour film. Monicelli is no scrub of course – the masterful Big Deal on Madonna Street, which essentially kicked off the Commedia all’italiana style, is one of my favourite Italian films, but he is the least known of the four to most casual filmgoers so it seems he was first on the chopping block. By the same token, there are no prizes for guessing which segment of Ro.Go.Pa.G. – directed by Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and Ugo Gregoretti – was dropped for international distribution. Which is a shame, because as you mention this is really a clever and interesting film. It has some quintessential postwar Italian film tropes – particularly the newlywed couple unable to consummate their vows due to work commitments and their inability to live away from their intrusive family, which posits this very interesting conception of sex or sexual freedom and its innate relationship to class; another manifestation of the working class having every element of their lives controlled by economic restrictions. I like your Il Posto comparison, or perhaps even more so, Olmi’s subsequent I Fidanzati, also about the difficulties of an Italian couple separated by the demands of work. I agree completely with how impressive visually this segment is as well – that public pool and its mass of naked humanity is as horrifying a scene as any of the hellscape tableaux in Fellini Satyricon, and the workplace would not look out of place in a scene in Tati’s Playtime. It’s not a perfect segment – the chemistry between the leads needed to sell the premise I didn’t really feel – but this is a really interesting piece, and couldn’t be further tonally than what follows. What did you make of the Fellini?
Jake: Well, this was nuts. Interestingly enough, the “Temptation of Dr. Antonio” short represents Fellini’s first colour production – whether this was due to a lack of interest in that particular milestone for Fellini himself, or the perceived gravitas of a production such as this one is fun to think about. I found this to be a definite success in terms of tone and pacing; the anthology format can allow directors to create emblematic or exaggerated expression of their typical style without it feeling like a cash-in, and Fellini really plays to that sense of levity here. It’s very ‘Fellini’ in a lot of ways; the cartoonish theatricality of the central character and his crusade against ‘immorality’, coupled with the plot centring on a billboard and the image of a film star, and culminating in a wild fantasy sequence, are all basically Felliniesque themes. Cramming all of this into a short film actually works here, as it ends up feeling quite self-effacing as a piece of work. The occasional feeling that his later films are ‘carnivalesque’ as a substitute for innovation (I’m thinking of Amarcord) is totally absent in his Boccaccio piece. It’s more overtly comic than most of Fellini’s films, too, which eases any hint of pretension but doesn’t take away from its incisiveness. Some of Antonio’s dialogue (“I’ve finished that essay – ‘Filth in Art’”) and the physical comedy of his ‘battle’ with the giant Anita Ekberg work generally really well to lampoon that kind of moraliser and the whole image of the repressed, angry celibate.
Brad: I like to think I know Fellini’s career well, but I hadn’t made the connection that this was his first film in colour – I’d always gone with his phantasmagoric Juliet and the Spirits in 1964, which is his first colour feature – but you’re quite right. And furthermore, you really get the sense he’s having fun here, he’s a filmmaker who seems to flourish in the short segment format rather than feel constricted 1 and this is as compelling a portrait of the contradictions behind repressed puritanism as you’ll see, but illustrated through the absurd. I also love this role of Anita Ekberg – I’ve only ever seen the late actress in three films – this, Frank Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust and her most iconic performance, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita from two years earlier. In all, she plays herself Anita Ekberg, playing into this mythology of Ekberg as an “Actress” rather than actress, a stand-in movie star used for satire as a generic mid-point between Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield and the European glamour of Alida Valli or Claudia Cardinale. As pure sex object here, Fellini does great work with practical effects shooting her in his torment of his main character. It also fits to the premise of the anthology as well, as a distinct social issue of the time, or the increasing sexualisation of movies and advertising, and the fact that product in question (milk) is both something particularly relating to antiquated ideals of children’s innocence, while also something bursting with innuendo is a particularly genius touch.
Jake: Sadly, I don’t have too much to say about Visconti’s “Il Lavoro” (“Work” or “The Job”) – I say sadly because I’m a huge fan of his work in general, and I know Brad is too, and this segment was pretty disappointing. No doubt, the trademark extravagant set design and subtle touch with actors are both here, with Tomas Milian and Romy Schneider eyeing one another with high-class, high-art lust, anger, regret, and everything in between. The 50 minutes given over to the piece just don’t allow it to breathe, though – a close, dialogue-driven script like this needs to either be backed up by a great ostentatious three-hour family epic (Luchino Visconti being the doyen of those) or by an intense, ascetic style (Ingmar Bergman with Ullmann and von Sydow as the leads would have smacked this fucker out of the park). As an aside, too, the proletarian or at least recognisable characters of the other segments make Octavio and Pupe seem hopelessly out of touch, and mar the subversiveness which Visconti brought to films about the upper class in works wholly his own. Still, adorable kittens.
Brad: I’m not even going to pretend I’m not a huge Visconti apologist 2 and although I did like this more than you Jake I agree it’s a bit odd. It fits into the later period of Visconti’s oeuvre (cue: Good Charlotte’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”) almost too snugly, but less so with the broader film. Rather than talking about wider social issues and Italy in the present/future, like most late Visconti “Il Lavoro” portrays the 1% of the 1% in a time period that could be 1960 or 1860 just as easily. But this is what fascinates Visconti, that exact isolation and lack of perspective among the aristocrats and bourgeois. So dulled by a lifetime of excess and privilege that sex is spoken of as a chore, that an adultery is worrying because of social and economic ramifications rather than personal. Where they unconvincingly talk about taking up jobs as a means of passing the time. It couldn’t be further removed from the earthy sensuality of Boccaccio or the segment to follow, and that interesting counter-point I think has value, although I agree Visconti isn’t suited to the short film format. We also agree on the cats.
Jake: Vittorio de Sica’s segment is as appropriate as a closing piece as Monicelli’s was as the first; these two shorts feel most definitively like slices of Italian cinema of the era. Both pieces, too, are largely successful in being wry enough about the questionable sexual politics of the era that they’ve aged well. This final segment, focusing on a raffle with the inimitable Sophia Loren’s carnival worker Zoe as a ‘prize’, toes a fine line in this regard. This segment, though, is the only one written by Cesare Zavattini, and his script, as is to be expected from the Bicycle Thieves writer, avoids crassness in favour of wit as well as warmth. Hints at social conscience, with Zoe vowing cryptically not to ‘become like her mother’ as a slave to a man, are paired with effective comedy: Loren bellowing at her carnie associate responsible for hawking the raffle tickets “you can’t just sell tickets, you have to look at the faces!” is among the funniest lines in the whole anthology. She’s got standards, after all. In the end, though the comedy isn’t as wild as in the Fellini, even the later scenes Loren shares with the hapless milquetoast who reluctantly wins the raffle. The commentary isn’t as urgent as with Monicelli, either. De Sica’s piece really suffers from his lack of a discernible style, which, while clear in his early neorealist works, seems to have fallen away in later decades. This wouldn’t be an issue outside of the anthology format, but a work so focused on the draw of a melange of filmmakers’ styles exploring the same themes really requires its segments to work in that almost self-parodic way: the Fellini part is a perfect case in point. Although I basically enjoyed “La Riffa”, it didn’t strike me as a recreation of, or reference to, anything in particular.
Brad: This segment I’m most torn on. It feels to me a bit of a “send the crowd home happy” and a mostly forgettable entry, and Sophia Loren isn’t given anywhere near as much to do as in something like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (also directed by De Sica). The gender issues are problematic and ambiguous; De Sica’s camera ogles and fixates on Loren’s chest to such an extent that by extension the camera’s perspective makes us complicit in the objectification of her, a literal ‘prize’ in this story. And this may be the point in itself, and a contemporary audience may read it like that, but the crowd-pleaser feel of the film casts some doubt, even with the mild twist at the end of the film. As drama it functions well but I would agree on the lack of style – Fellini’s and especially Visconti’s pieces verge on self-parody in their adherence to the filmmakers’ aesthetics – that I find it hard to feel strongly about this ending segment. Overall it does make the film feel particularly top-heavy; I can recommend without hesitation the first two segments, but would reserve doing the same for the latter two except as curios for Visconti completists and Loren fans. But as a whole I think it is one of the stronger anthology efforts from the period. How did you find the project overall?
Jake: I think what’s been thought-provoking for me in looking at Boccaccio ‘70 is being forced to assess a film on totally different merits than a typical standalone feature – it’s interesting that we both seemed to have the strongest reactions to the segments which function most clearly as nods to their directors’ styles, rather than looking to necessarily single out the most successful or mature examples of those styles. I also found myself ‘buying in’ to the premise of star actors/actresses in this anthology than I ordinarily would, especially as the most heralded female leads of much of Sixties Italian cinema fall into that Marilyn Monroe category – style, image, allure, signifier, often over substance. Something about the almost necessarily parodic nature of the anthology allows star image more of a free rein to subsume narrative. That said, there’s plenty in each segment here to admire beyond the performances. Between Monicelli’s startling sets (and Brad, your Playtime comparison is spot on), Fellini’s devilish fantasy, de Sica’s wryness, and even the Viscontian ‘poor little rich girl’ I derided so much earlier, I really enjoyed this.
As part of this series, we ask all participants in the roundtables to rank the shorts within, not as a means of finding consensus but rather the opposite, an effort to show how varied segments within an anthology film can be, and the highly subjective nature in approaching them.
|Jake Moody||Brad Mariano|
|1. “Temptation of Dr. Antonio”, Federico Fellini
2. “Renzo e Luciana”, Mario Monicelli
3. “La Riffa”, Vittorio De Sica
4. “Il Lavoro”, Luchino Visconti
|1. “Temptation of Dr. Antonio”, Federico Fellini
2. “Renzo e Luciana”, Mario Monicelli
3. “Il Lavoro”, Luchino Visconti
4. “La Riffa”, Vittorio De Sica