Sunday 12 April 2009

Signore & signori (1966)

(300th post! Arbitrary yay!)

If the north of Italy has a La dolce vita, it is Signore & signori (Ladies & gentlemen). Just as La dolce vita exposed the debauched, immoral (night)life of the Roman bourgeois, Signore & signori does the same for northern Italy - and it uses the same style of vicious satire. A key difference is that, unlike La dolce vita's underlying melancholy, Signore & signori believes the proper response to the outrageous hypocrisy on display is laughter. And indeed, it is very, very funny. Another key difference is that northern Italy has historically been more "bourgeois" than southern Italy - that is, it has been historically richer and more empowered (e.g. Renaissance Venice or the Duchy of Savoy, to the Kingdom of Naples) - so this film could just as easily be set in the 1960s as the 1560s.

Signore & signori is funny in a scathing, dark way. No character is better than any other character, and all of them are pretty awful: selfish, mean-spirited, hedonistic. The film is divided into three distinct sections, each focusing on a particular problem among the bourgeois of a northern Italian city (most likely Treviso). The first story focuses on the loud, over-the-top Dr. Castellan (Gigi Ballista) and his blonde, airhead wife, Noemi (Beba Loncar). On an evening before a major party, one of Castellan's friends, the nervous-looking Gasparini (Alberto Lionello), comes to Castellan in confidentiality with a medical problem: he is impotent. Yet at the party, Castellan repeatedly sets Gasparini up for group mocking, as well as spreading the rumor to everyone (eventually reaching Gasparini's wife, the fearsome moral police lady Ippolita (Olga Villi)). But Castellan is the one being duped when, upon returning home, he finds Gasparini and Noemi together!

(You'll notice that exclamation points, adultery and mean-spirited mockery are themes of this film.) One of the various adulteries.

Like La dolce vita, the Church is shown to be just as morally bankrupt as everyone else!

The second story follows the tall, oafish Osvaldo Bisigato (Gastone Moschin). Bisigato's shrewish, nagging wife complains to him all day, so he typically wears earplugs. His children ignore him, his job in the bank is boring. His only respite from this wearying existence is the cute girl, Milena (Virni Lisi), who works at the coffee shop downstairs. Under the eyes of the gossiping Treviso elite, Bisigato visits Milena every day, eventually beginning a relationship with her. Eventually it all comes crashing down: he leaves his wife and children, provoking the wrath of the Catholic morality police, led by Ippolita; his "friends" begin to send anonymous letters to him insinuating at Milena's moral weaknesses; and everyone in town basically conspires to juice the situation for all it's worth, teasing both Bisigato and his family in their weakest points.

Aldo Puglisi, who plays the only non-Venetian character and only honorable character, the Neopolitan police officer, Mancuso. Question to the PPCC: is Aldo Puglisi the Doppelgänger/lookalike of Ranvir Shorey, or is it just us?!

The third story, by far the most disturbing, follows a gorgeous, young country girl, Alda (Patrizia Valturri), as she comes to town to buy some goods. One by one, the town's bored, womanizing men - from the shoe shop salesman to the pharmacist to Gasparini and Dr. Castellan as well - seduce (rape?) her in exchange for pretty shoes, some headache medicine, and so forth. Prostitution? Rape? The insinuations are not very pretty - and things get even worse, when Alda's enraged, drunken father comes to town, accusing the men of statutory rape: Alda is only 15 years old! The guilty group, meanwhile, panics and - with the help of Ippolita, and therefore the approval of the Catholic morality police - they bribe Alda and her father in order to "save the face of the good town citizens".

The guilty group.

Each outrageous twist in this already over-the-top film is punctuated by loud, silly, 1960s dance music: emphasizing the harshly satirical take on the moral bankruptcy of the Northern provincial elite. It is sometimes very funny (Bisigato's tale in particular), sometimes cringe-worthy (Gasparini's), and sometimes disgusting (the statutory rape case). It is also very broad and very obvious: with slapstick, sight gags and caricatures instead of characters.

That's actually okay. Despite the seediness of the content, and the broad brushstrokes in which it's presented, we really enjoyed this film. It tickled us pink to see the Veneto region - so often ignored by Italian cinema, which is dominated by artists from Rome, Naples and Palermo, stories about the Mafia or Cinecittà, and a particular emphasis on the Southern experience. Signore & signori's characters speak in the thick Venetian dialect, hover around the familiar architecture of the region. The regional setting is important since, as we never tire of saying, Italian culture is dominated by regionalism: there are distinct stereotypes concerning what a Neopolitan looks, sounds and thinks like, as compared to a Roman, Milanese or whatever. It was therefore interesting to read that director Pietro Germi had actually considered casting this film with well-known southerners Marcello Mastroianni and Nino Manfredi (especially baffling since we think Nino Manfredi epitomizes "Roman irony"). The film's regionalism is also fascinating since it shows the relative wealth and moral bankruptcy of the Veneto, as compared to the intense poverty still experienced in Campania, Calabria or Sicily at that time (the 1960s).

The wonderfully handsome Giulio Questi, as the lecherous pharmacist. Giulio Questi went on to win acclaim as a director of ultra-violent spaghetti westerns such as Django, Kill! He also played one of the aristocratic princes in La dolce vita.

The performances and presentation are all fun and frothy and self-consciously horrible. No one plays for any sympathy - these characters are not supposed to be liked. The cinematography, with its lazy, drooping shots of Treviso's Piazze dei Signori (Gentlemen's Square, where much of the action takes place of course!), its spinning cuts and sight gags, also seems "in" on the joke.

Brutal and shamelessly one-dimensional, we definitely recommend this film as yet another examination of Italian regional sociopolitics in the postwar era - after Ladri di biciclette, La dolce vita, Io la conoscevo bene and C'eravamo tanto amati. Will we ever get tired of this genre? Not when the movies about it are so good!


eliza bennet said...

Congrats on the 300th post! Keep them coming :)

Amrita said...

Woohoo ~ 300! Here's to 300 more.

Re: Signore & Signori, I sometimes read your Italian reviews and wonder if I'd get half those nuances. I think the best plan is to just watch them in the order of your posts. :)

Bollyviewer said...

O My, 300! Thats a LOT of writing! Here's hoping there are several hundred more, yet to come!

Re Italian cinema, how bout reviewing some Italian equivalent of masala - something that involves pretty people, fun romance, broad humor and happily-ever-after?

a ppcc representative said...

eliza bennet - Thanks. :)

Amrita - I wonder what the 600th will be! I approve of your plan. And I re-watched Signore & Signori the other night and can doubly recommend it.

Bollyviewer - Hmm, I'll try to dig out something more masala-issimo. The only characteristic I worry about is the happy ending!