In Bocca al Lupo

By Rosy Rockets

la-riffa-vittori-de-sica.jpgBoccaccio ’70, 1962

Boccaccio ’70 is an Italian imagining of tomorrow’s world conceived by Cesare Zavattini and directed by four familiar faces. It might be described as a melding of Tales of the City with Tales of the Unexpected, but it was inspired by a much older work: the allegorical Tales of the Decameron, written by Petrarch’s pen pal Boccaccio. The 14th century Decameron collection draws its ingredients from folk tales and overheard anecdotes from around the globe, and has proved a universally popular source of inspiration for many subsequent works of literature; its fixes and devices have been plundered by countless big names from Shakespeare and Longfellow to Hugh Hefner.

The structure of the Decameron follows a pattern of palindromes, echoes, ironies and reversals not found in Boccaccio, which is a straightforward series of distinctive fables with little unity beyond their common focus on an icon of feminine beauty. Just as the Decameron satirised didactic allegory, the stories in Boccaccio are simple, wry commentaries on the changing moral values of Italian society in the sixties.

Each section deals with the empowerment of woman as commodity, amidst a carnival of controlled carnality. Although the first piece features unknowns, the following three are really show reels which play out like limericks, each screen siren draped in a little off-the-shoulder plot. There were several contributors to some of the screenplays, but the multiple cooks have not spoiled the froth.

The writer Boccaccio was fond of allocating character names which had some etymological significance to their subjects, and it is possible that this tradition was carried over into Boccaccio ‘70. The first example is Renzo e Luciana, directed by the venerable Mario Monicelli. Monicelli couldn’t catch a star for his section, and so his story features a Poundshop Elvis (Germano Gilioli) and a random beauty (Marisa Solinas) as the two protagonists and lovers.

Renzo – Lorenzo – Lawrence – St Lawrence, the spit-roasted martyr and patron saint of comedians.

Luciana – light, the flame which draws the moth-men.

The subtitling throughout the collection is often clever but occasionally clumsy, and in this feature has the women refer to the men teasingly as “wolves”. However, in Boccaccio ‘70 the women are the predators. The word used is not “lupo”, but sounds like “drago”, from “dragon” – an Italian slang word used to describe a bold pretender to the alpha male throne. “You are my dragon,” Luciana says to Renzo with teasing affection, to appease his jealousy. “Look out, here comes the dragon!” laughs her typist colleague when their officious boss arrives in the office. For all the boss’s bluster, it is the women who are in control – they have outgrown their red riding hoods.

boccaccio.jpgBoccaccio ’70, 1962

Monicelli’s rat race is a cute Mario Kart rally of comically undersized vehicles in clean streets. Renzo’s tiny car wobbles after Luciana’s bus in an early scene, and they gaze wistfully at one another – their love affair is set for an equally wobbly journey as the storyline rests on the bizarre conceit that marriage and pregnancy is forbidden at their workplace. Luciana must marry in secret, bunking off work with a fake dental appointment, and later hide her suspected morning sickness from her officious boss. In the 1970s Italian law actually dictated that dismissal due to marriage or pregnancy was not to be tolerated. Nowadays women are able to use pregnancy as an escape from work whilst retaining job security – Luciana does not have this luxury. Her flirtatious boss, a nimble fatty, stalks Luciana among the shrouded typewriters, barking her into submission with his mirthless Wario chortle.

Back home, the newlyweds huddle behind a glass door in a bedroom lit and unlit intermittently by a flashing street sign, blithely cross at their predicament. They have nowhere to turn for privacy – “not even a hole in the wall”, remarks Renzo. They rendezvous among the shoals of identical bodies at the pool, the swarms at the cinema, every wide shot a “Where’s Wally?”. The original Decameron was a frame narrative; story sits within story, like The Princess Bride or Dead of Night. Although Boccaccio ’70 is a row of dolls and not a Russian doll, the imagery of Renzo e Luciana acts as a visual frame narrative. Naturally we follow the protagonists, and yet so many other lives go on in the background, framed in windows, glass offices, transparent swimming pool walls and mirror tiles. The architecture, the acoustics and the clothes are all perfectly trim and tailored. Not so the plotline – once Luciana has found a get-out clause, the story lingers after the tenuous “happily ever after” promise to suggest rockier times ahead. It is an uneven and discomfiting pay-off. This is a deceptively frivolous story whose companion pieces emphasise its poignancy by comparison.

il-lavoro-luchino-visconti.jpgBoccaccio ’70, 1962

The second section is Fellini's first exploration into colour, Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio.

Antonio - Saint Antonio – some say that farmers honour this patron saint of animals by painting enormous pink pigs on the stable walls, to represent the pink, soft temptations which drove him to the Thebaid desert.

Marcus Antonius lost the chance to rule the Romans when he fell for Cleopatra.

This is a guilty macrophilic fantasy in the spirit of Fritz Leiber’s 60s sci-fi fables, as well as a cheeky poke at the censorship issues raised by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Antonio (Peppino DiFilippo) could be Count Arthur Strong’s prissy cousin, his sexual repression driven to its limit by the erection of a saucy “DRINK MILK” advert opposite his apartment – featuring a 50 foot Anita Ekberg as herself. The story of this fussy prude is narrated by a gurgling child Cupid (with an excruciating voice resembling that of Zelda Poltergeist Rubinstein) who is presumably responsible for bringing this milky two-dimensional avatar of fear and desire to life by some enchantment.

The Shrinking Man and 50 Foot Woman had appeared on the big screen a few years earlier, but Tentazioni is in a league of its own. It first presents as a Vogue photo shoot directed by Peter Greenaway but melts into a style-hopping montage which introduces the repressed doctor. Like Graham Chapman’s “Colonel”, he hurls stentorian protests at dancing girls, drive-in smoochers and sellers of saucy magazines. His actions are all antics – this could be a Bruno Bozzetto animation. Like many prudes, Antonio blatantly revels in the sin he denounces, and his wails swell as the “DRINK MINK” song sweeps the community. “Bevete pui latte” is a jingle worthy of George Dawes, a welcome earworm which bolsters the soul.

Bathroom mirrors are notorious for their capturing of disturbing apparitions, and as Antonio lathers his chin one morning, a black glove thrusts a tumbler of milk into his line of sight as though it were Excalibur. His hallucinations and protests continue, his sanity growing ever more precarious until he finally addresses the billboard directly. Suffering Sappho! The iceberg-sized Ekberg steps down from the billboard, and the Donald McGill gender dynamic plays out in protracted Warner Bros. style. Antonio swoons and screams, and at one point comes close to straddling the atom bomb sized nipples of a giantess, as Gulliver did before him. He finally confesses his love for Ekberg, who shrinks to a more manageable size – but he cannot ultimately accept his feelings. The bizarre resolution to this tale is appended by a shot of the horrifyingly juicy little cherub, clinging to the blue beacon of an ambulance. Pray that it does not visit your wildest fantasies upon you one day.

le-tentazioni-del-dottor-antonio-federico-fellini.jpgBoccaccio ’70, 1962

The third piece is Il Lavoro, in which Luchino Visconti returns to a pet theme – the bored and sophisticated.

Ottavio – eighth. Marks him out as a number, an heir to nobility.

Pupe – a child, a doll, a plaything.

This slow-moving domestic drama follows the cold war between Pupe, a feline Stockard Channing lookalike in Chanel (Romy Schneider) and her impecunious playboy partner (Tomas Millian), who has been papped playing pattycake. Cat fancier Pupe often wanders off on a whim, composing adolescent poetry in a brown study. The privileged pair are surrounded by opulence, but the louche two eschew the scenery beyond the wringing of kittens and answering of phones. The sex scandal is just something else to bicker about – theirs is a marriage of convenience, although there is affection hidden beneath the contempt. Pupe occasionally speaks in German, which is not subtitled – but these exchanges mostly consist of light admonishments and endearments to her staff, father and kittens. There is a nasty, knotty atmosphere between the leads, like tangled wet stockings. Pupe’s father bets her $100,000 that she can’t and won’t stop relying on him financially, and start earning her own money. Pupe opts for poetic irony in her career choice – and Ottavio calls her bluff. The scandal fades into the background as their romantic conflict becomes more intrusive. These over-privileged adult-children have no ambition or motivation – they would be lifeless but for an emotional entanglement which they are both too proud to discuss. Like the section that preceded this story, the moral might be “Be careful what you wish for…” especially if that wish is unconscious.

la-riffa-vittori-de-sica-default.jpgBoccaccio ’70, 1962

The final section is DeSica’s flippant La Riffa, which stars one of his favourites, Sophia Loren.

Zoe – life

Gaetano – saint known for virtue

Zoe owns a shooting gallery at a travelling fair, and offers herself as a raffle prize to raise money for her pregnant sister. Sophia Loren proves more popular than the usual bottle of Radox or Cava, and the tickets are soon sold out; but of course it’s the meek sacristan who wins the prize. When sexpot meets sexton (Alfio Vita), this final limerick exposes itself as a riff on the “…as the tart said to the vicar” theme. The opening imagery of the cattle market carries into a pantomime representation of the world of wooing. Riffa captures the silliness, strangeness, sweetness and sadness of its sister acts, celebrating as they do both feminine autonomy and feminine anatomy in equal parts, and tying off the quartet with a shiny red bow.

Rosy Rockets is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge.