SOPHIA LOREN

SOPHIA LOREN

We hooked up our new Amazon Fire TV gizmo and got a little giddy with the voice-recognition remote. One of the names we blurted into the device was “Sophia Loren” and that led us to watch Judith a 1965 example of a wasted opportunity.The cast also included Jack Hawkins and Peter Finch.

This project had possibilities. The story is set in Palestine shortly before the British pulled out of what was to become the State of Israel. A ragtag military organization called the Haganah — forerunner of the Jewish Defense Force — is anticipating more than the usual hostility from surrounding Arabs and is particularly concerned about a former German tank commander, Gustav Schiller, who is providing the Arabs with tactical training. In order to find the elusive Schiller, the Haganah leadership recruits the Nazi’s former wife, Judith, a Jew who has her own reasons for wanting to track him down.

At the beginning of the film we watch as Judith is smuggled into a sea port in a large wooden crate along with another woman and a piece of heavy machinery. When the crate is opened we already see the flaw in this movie: one of the women is dead — not a surprising outcome, considering the mode of transport — but Judith is tastefully disheveled but not so much so that she isn’t ravishing in eye makeup and lipstick as befitted a mid-1960s sex goddess.

PETER FINCH and SOPHIA LOREN

PETER FINCH and SOPHIA LOREN

Judith is hustled off to the kibbutz where an Haganah unit is housed under the supervision of Aaron Stein, played by Finch. The back story is that Schiller and Judith had a son together, but that Schiller ultimately abandoned his wife and took their child. Judith wound up in the Dachau concentration camp and was forced to have sex with German officers.

Judith doesn’t know where Schiller is, but the Haganah leaders figure that she could identify him if they did locate him. Aaron nudges the impatient Judith into approaching the local British Army commander, a Major Lawton (Jack Hawkins) into letting her see the military file on Schiller. Lawton, who is an upright chap, is nevertheless no match for Judith’s charms, and he hands over the file, which indicates that Schiller’s last known address was Damascus.Stein and another Haganah member take Judith to Damascus where they find Schiller. Judith double-crosses Haganah by shooting Schiller, but somehow the men smuggle the wounded man back to Palestine.While the kibbutz is being attached by Arab forces, Schiller tells Judith about the plan of attack, but he is killed by Arab bombs before telling her where their son has gone.

JACK HAWKINS and SOPHIA LOREN

JACK HAWKINS and SOPHIA LOREN


There probably was enough to go on here to make a decent movie. Finch and Hawkins turned in good performances, and the gritty location shots created a credible image of the environment in which such events would have taken place in 1948. But the film is often reduced to absurdity because of the seemingly irresistible opportunity to exploit Sophia Loren’s physical charms.

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Having dabbled with Marcello Mastroianni in Macaroni and Marriage Italian Style, we went to the well once more in the form Sunflower, a film we had never heard of. The results were mixed.

This film, made in 1970, was the last directed by Vittorio De Sica, and —significantly — it was the first western film shot, in part, in the Soviet Union. Mastroianni, who was 46 when this movie was made, plays Antonio, a happy-go-lucky Neapolitan who is drafted into the Italian army during World War II. He is not a willing conscript, and his valor isn’t helped by the fact that he is in the middle of passionate fling with Giovanna, played by 36-year-old Sophia Loren.  His attempt, with Giovanna’s connivance, to avoid military service results in a court-martial and his deployment to the Russian front — which was a brutal fate thanks to both the Red Army and the merciless winters.

When the war ends, Antonio doesn’t return, but Giovanna is convinced that he is still alive. After failing to get any satisfaction from public authorities, she travels to Russia to look for him. It’s not a spoiler to say she finds him, inasmuch as Mastroianni is the co-star. Some may find the circumstances and outcome predictable; some may not.

Watching this film, which has Italian dialogue and English subtitles, is an uneven experience. Mastroianni and Loren are an irresistible combination, and they play their  parts well, but the story itself is at times melodramatic and implausible. In what seems to have been an overreaching attempt to project the character’s moods, Loren is made to look at times as if she’s 30 and at other times as if she’s 50.

The photography in both Italy and Russia is eye-catching, and there is a very effective scene in which Giovanna visits a Russian hillside that is dotted with hundreds of wooden crosses marking the graves of Italian soldiers. The film also has a wonderful score by Henry Mancini that was nominated for an Oscar.

When we recommended to a neighbor that she watch the Marcello Mastroianni-Jack Lemmon film “Macaroni,” she countered by referring us to the 1964 movie “Marriage Italian Style,” in which Mastroianni stars with Sophia Loren. I had seen it about 40 years ago, but didn’t remember anything about it.

Filmed in Italian in Naples, this is the story of an amoral businessman who meets a teen-aged prostitute in a brothel during an Allied bombing raid, and then makes her his mistress when they meet again several years later. Domenico Soriano (Mastroianni) is in the baking business, and he puts Filumina Maturano (Loren) in charge of one of his stores while he keeps her — outside his home — in a very comfortable style. Filumena is not satisfied with this arrangement and she pressures “Dummi,” as she calls him, both to publicly acknowledge her and to make her a part of his household. Step-by-step she gains concessions  that include a room in his house and recognition as the “lady” of the premises, but she does not get the final prize, marriage, until she employs a  subterfuge that blows up in her face.

Domenico’s passion for Filumena degrades into disgust, and he takes up a relationship with a young cashier at one of his shops.

Meanwhile, Filumena has a secret of her own — actually, three — namely a trio of sons she has borne as a result of her career, one of them by the unwitting Domenico.

This film, directed by Vittorio De Sica and filmed in the earthy Neapolitan environment, is a combination of farce, tawdry melodrama, and implausible plot, that can’t be taken seriously. Considering the lengths De Sica went to in order to exploit Loren’s legendary physique – as opposed to the weight of her acting – the Oscar she won as “best actress in a foreign film”  seems farcical in itself.

Having said that, I can report that the movie, taken for what it is, is funny and entertaining. The surroundings, whether indoor or out, are engaging, and Mastroianni himself is hard to completely dislike in any role. In this case, except for the ludicrous conclusion, he is worth watching as the rake trying to avoid the consequences of a misspent adulthood.

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February 15, 2010

Quasimodo

CHARLES LAUGHTON

I turned on a TV yesterday morning — an unlikely thing for me to do — and wound up watching part of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” on Turner Classic Movies. It was the 1939 version starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda. It is one of at least 14 movie and television adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel “Notre Dame de Paris” — the formal name of the cathedral in Paris — and is generally accepted as the best of the lot. Among silent films, the 1923 version starring Lon Chaney was a benchmark achievement on several accounts — the sets recreating 15th century Paris, Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the deformed bell ringer, and the box office receipts of more than $3 million, Universal’s highest gross in the silent era.

I was pretty young when I first read Hugo’s novel, which is always marketed under the misleading title used on most of the films — misleading in that while Quasimodo might, ironically, be the most attractive figure in the story, he is not more important to the story than Esmeralda or Claude Frollo. Although the story has been retold 14 times on film TV, none of the re-tellings are entirely true to the original. Writers and directors have departed in many ways from Hugo’s plot and characters.

LON CHANEY

It is central to the tragedy of Hugo’s story that Esmeralda is executed and Quasimodo vanishes after her death, and Hugo leads his readers to believe that the bell ringer died in his grief, embracing Esmeralda’s body in a cemetery for social castoffs.  In the Laughton version both characters are alive at the end of the film; in the Chaney version Quasimodo dies, but Esmeralda lives. These are not details; they are significant deviations from Hugo’s intent.

Among the other actors who have played Quasimodo are men as different as Anthony Quinn, Anthony Hopkins, and Mandy Patinkin — the latter in a TNT cable production in 1997. Quinn was paired with Sophia Loren in a 1956 French production in which he and Loren were the only actors who spoke English. The rest of the dialogue had to be dubbed over the French.

ANTHONY QUINN

That was the first color film based on the novel. Whereas Patinkin tried to duplicate as closely as possible Laughton’s image of Quasimodo, Quinn’s makeup was mild, not coming close to the grotesque features that Hugo describes and that constitute the context for the bell ringer’s place in — or, rather, outside of — society. In that version, Esmeralda is killed accidentally which, of course, dilutes the injustice inherent in the story. But who would want to execute Sophia Loren?

Walt Disney Productions

There have also been a couple of attempts to stray so far from Hugo’s work as to turn Quasimodo into a huggable cutie — as in Walt Disney’s 1996 animated feature — or even a comic figure, as in the 1999 French romp, “Quasimodo d’El Paris.”

I hope that folks who have seen even the best of these films don’t think they’ve experienced what Victor Hugo created in his novel. On the other hand, who has the patience to read classical novels in the Twitter age?

Incidentally, the bell ringer was named Quasimodo because, as an infant, he was abandoned at  the cathedral by his mother and found on Quasimodo Sunday — the first Sunday after Easter. The Introit of the Mass for that day is taken from the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. That passage is often translated, As newborn infants do, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, for you have tasted that the Lord is good.

VICTOR HUGO

I have read what I consider to be a spurious explanation that Quasimodo’s name was a play on words — an idea that depends on translating quasi modo to mean “partly made” — meaning that Quasimodo was born incomplete. I can’t find my Cassell’s Latin Dictionary right now, but if memory serves me right, the literal translation of the first two words of  the passage is not “partly made” but “in a similar way.”

sophiaAt the age of 66, I saw my first 3-D movie – “Monsters vs. Aliens” – and it was a hoot. The occasion was that our granddaughters are spending a couple of days with us, and on a rainy day a movie seemed like a good way to get out of the house. Um, to go sit in the dark at the Regal Cinema, but that’s still not sitting at home. That may be the first time I took the girls to a movie, though Pat may have taken them before. I don’t have a  lot of experience with that; my grandparents weren’t movie goers. Well, it didn’t seem that way, but one Saturday when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my grandfather was very animated about a movie he had seen the night before – the film version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” This film featured Sophia Loren as the Ethiopian princess, which was ironic considering the historic relationship between Italy and Ethiopia.  My grandfather was on the phone all day calling his friends, urging them to go to Paterson to see this film. I wasn’t used to Grandpa going to movies or listening to opera, so this attracted my attention. I overheard him tell Tony Pombo, the vegetable peddler, that he was going to see “Aida” again, so I asked him if I could go along. I wound up taking two of my friends, and we were all impressed by something that before that night was completely foreign to our experience. (No, I don’t mean Loren.) That movie launched me into a lifelong love affair with opera. That was the only time my grandfather and I did anything like that together. Our relationship was a little remote for that. But I always give him credit for the fact that I have seen and listened to so much of Verdi and Puccini and Rossini and Bizet over the last 50 years.

gonewiththewind1 Grandma, incidentally, didn’t see “Aida,” because she swore off movies after she saw “Gone With the Wind.” This was the stuff of family legend: She was scandalized by the language with which Clark Gable addressed Viven Leigh in the famous finale. Apparently Grandma didn’t see why she should pay good money to listen to such talk when she was perfectly capable of staying home and swearing like a drunken sailor anytime she pleased. She also had a parakeet that she taught to utter profanities with an Italian accent, so she could hear the blue talk without contributing anything on her own, and without buying a ticket. People were so much more self-sufficient in her generation.