Directors: Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica
Italy, the 1960s. Four stories inspired by Boccaccio. In the first, ‘Renzo e Luciana’, the two eponymous lovers conduct an affair without their work colleagues knowing as they would both be fired. They marry, but find living with Luciana’s family too overcrowded and search for any privacy. Luciana is pursued by her boss, Osvaldo. She suspects she might be pregnant but it’s a false alarm. Renzo is accused of harassing Luciana at work, but she reveals the truth about their relationship. They might be unemployed but they have each other.
In the second, ‘Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio’, the morally upright eponymous doctor throws stones at copulating couples in the street, accusing them of turning Rome into a brothel. He interrupts a theatre performance to protest and asks women wearing loose fitting clothing to cover up. A giant billboard advertising milk featuring the actress Anita Ekberg, is erected outside his apartment. He asks the Church and local authorities to intervene and he vandalises the billboard. One night he has crazed and delirious dreams where Ekberg comes to life and taunts him.
In the third, ‘Il lavoro’, Count Ottavio returns to his home beset by scandals involving call girls. Speaking to lawyers and colleagues, he realises his wife, Pupe, hasn’t returned home, but she sneaks back home whilst he’s in discussion about silencing the press. Pupe reveals she’s been to visit Ottavio’s call girls. She plans for her future, to get a paid job, although she finds it difficult to reject her life and do so. Pupe realises that prostitution is all she might be cut out for.
In the fourth, ‘La riffa’, Zoe, a carnival booth owner, auctions herself in a lottery to pay for her back taxes, which is popular amongst the local, lecherous men. She has a fling with Gaetano after he rescues her from being attacked by a bull (when she was wearing a red blouse), but he grows jealous when Caspar wins a night with Zoe from the lottery. Although nothing happens, Caspar returns to the village a hero, whilst Zoe is reunited with Gaetano.
The portmanteau film was a curious cinematic phenomenon of the early 1960s – see also ‘Ro.Go.Pa.G’ (Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti), in which top European directors made loosely connecting shorts, compiled and released together. For the producer of ‘Boccaccio ’70’, no doubt the appeal was to showcase the talents of marquee names such as Fellini, Visconti and de Sica, though he clearly didn’t mind undermining the fourth director, Mario Monicelli, whose short was removed from the international release, which led to the remaining directors boycotting the presentation of the film at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The portmanteau art film was a short-lived experiment; perhaps rightly so, since neither of the two mentioned have acquired a sterling reputation. One supposes the nearest Hollywood example would be ‘Four Rooms’, the universally derided Miramax release from the mid-1990s when the seeds of Quentin Tarantino’s descent into self-indulgence began to grow.
The format itself makes it difficult for any of the individual directors to flourish. The brief is simple; present an approximately 45-50 minute film on modern love inspired by Boccaccio, author of ‘Decameron’, which itself would be filmed by Pasolini in a decade or so. If Ponti had displayed any kind of foresight, then perhaps Pasolini might have proved an inspired choice to direct a segment, though his plans for the Trilogy of Life might have been some way off.
Even though Fellini and Visconti were probably at their creative peak, the restrictions placed upon them and their colleagues don’t especially help. The Boccaccio remit is probably no more than a gimmick to frame the film around. Each of their films seem personal and not overburdened by respect to the film’s inspiration. The short running times for each film, around half a feature length, means that each film feels rushed and not fully realised. There’s probably enough material in each to extend them to full length features but pressure to reduce the running time mean that ideas aren’t fully developed and narratives contrive too quickly and conveniently.
One of the more ironic factors to emerge is that Monicelli, slighted by producer Carlo Ponti, probably actually produces the most interesting and cohesive short. It’s a sweet tale of two young lovers who find themselves under pressure from family and employers, which threatens to tear them apart but of course resolves itself neatly. Marisa Solinas, in her first role, delivers a nicely understated performance and the overall sense of modesty is actually a welcome change from the excesses of the remaining short films.
Fellini’s short maintains his nascent interest at this juncture in dreams and the subconscious as he wittily punctures the pomposity and hypocrisy of a self-appointed moral guardian but is prone to lapsing into self-indulgence at every turn. Visconti’s short is a detached and remote account of the emotional and romantic woes of the upper bourgeoisie where the wife strives for independence but realises she can’t abandon her life of privilege, yet Visconti makes it tough to care for this self-absorbed married couple. de Sica showcases the acting talents of Sophia Loren in full-on sex-kitten mode but relies too much on exploiting this persona, with all too frequent cuts to lecherous old men leering at her when she bends over or removes her blouse. It’s simple and cheap attempts to gain laughs, nothing more.
More than anything though, these films are a tribute to women. They’re smart, sassy and sexy, constantly in charge of the men they’re involved with, who’re constantly given the runaround. They strive for independence and sometimes find it difficult to attain, but they’re empowered nonetheless. With this in mind, Monicelli’s short seems all the more distinguishable from the others. His Luciana is merely trying to be an equal to her man and navigating the problems that society’s imposing upon their relationship. She’s not the equal of Anita, Pupe and Zoe. So Monicelli’s short becomes something of an unnatural fit, not really working in the overall context of the anthology but almost acting as a standalone film that’s been surgically attached to the others. One could never claim with any justification that any of these shorts are amongst the greatest works of the respective directors; they’re light, often enjoyable but ultimately trivial shorts that pique one’s curiosity but never leaves one really satisfied.
‘Boccaccio ’70’ was released on DVD on 1 June by Mr Bongo films.