Anthology films were a popular conceit back in the heyday of European art-house cinema. Typically a disparate group of acclaimed auteurs would contribute short(ish) segments united around a single theme. More often than not showcasing a famous Euro sex kitten or three as is the case here. Conceived by acclaimed Italian screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, author of Bicycle Thieves (1948) among many others, Boccaccio '70 marked a significant step as Italian filmmakers attempted to evolve beyond the constrictions of Neo-Realism and express themselves freely. As such the film was derided as frivolous by die-hard social realist critics in Italy yet admired overseas and is today rated a masterful example of the anthology form.
Inspired by the writing of Giovanni Boccaccio, the Italian Renaissance poet and author behind The Decameron, later brought to the screen by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the film attempts to explore different aspects of love and morality in 'modern' times. We begin with 'Renzo e Luciana' wherein young factory worker Luciana (Marisa Solinas) marries humble errand boy Renzo (Germano Gilioli) while her fiery papa wonders why they are in such a hurry. As it turns out the factory frowns on female employees getting married so Luciana hides her relationship with Renzo so they can both hold onto their jobs. Sharing a crowded flat with boisterous in-laws leaves the young couple no time to themselves while Luciana avoids the unwanted advances of her boorish boss who has a particularly strange laugh.
Directed by Mario Monicelli, Italy's leading exponent of sophisticated comedies like Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and Casanova '70 (1965), this was the only episode without an international star in the cast. Which is why producer Carlo Ponti removed Monicelli's segment from the export versions of Boccaccio '70 much to the director's displeasure. In solidarity with Monicelli the other three directors did not attend the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival although it was only recently that the episode was restored. Truth be told watching flighty, grumpy characters snipe at each other in rapid-fire Italian proves more exhausting than funny. Even so the slice-of-life situation likely resonated with young Italians at the time and its critique of business and bureaucracy stifling family life packs a satirical sting with some pathos. Feisty Luciana steers the relationship planning for the future, establishing a theme that runs throughout Boccaccio '70 wherein women take charge although, in typical Italian style, the segments are all pretty ambiguous about whether this is a good thing. Monicelli serves up an appealing snapshot of Italy at the height of La Dolce Vita in scenes at chic nightclubs and public pools packed with bronzed bodies but the segment goes on and on long after our interest in the couple's plight has dissipated. Its basic message that modern life leaves no room for anything but work remains slight.
Things pick up considerably once the maestro Federico Fellini steps up to the plate. His amazing 'Le Tentazioni del dottor Antonio' marked his film in colour. True to form Fellini hits the ground running with a carnivalesque vision of life in Rome via a parade of eye-popping cartoon characters and images narrated by a giggling childlike sprite we only briefly glimpse at the finale. Stuffed-shirt Doctor Antonio Mazzuolo (Peppino De Filippo) rides around Rome, morning, noon and night battling indecency wherever he finds it. Which is everywhere. He scolds couples canoodling in cars, invades the stage at a theatre where showgirls shake their scantily-clad asses and even reminisces about the time he slapped a woman for being simply too voluptuous (a sequence Fellini styles as a dazzling pastiche of black and white slapstick comedy). However even the good doctor's moral fortitude proves ineffectual when ad men erect a provocative billboard with none other than Fellini muse Anita Ekberg advertising milk. While Anita's pulchritudinous presence provokes a party among the locals, including a passing jazz band and even the clergy, Mazzuolo grows apoplectic: "Do we want to build monuments to sex? Triumphal arches for whores?" After trying his utmost to tear the billboard down, Mazzuolo is tormented by visions of a gigantic Anita Ekberg who climbs down from her poster to run amuck Attack of the 50ft Woman-style, clasping the vainly-protesting doctor to her mountainous bosom.
In some ways a precursor to Fellini's celebrated Toby Dammit episode in horror anthology Spirits of the Dead (1968), all his familiar obsessions are here: voluptuous women who embody a concept of sex both enticing and monstrous, fantasy punctuating reality, psychoanalysis and a view of life as a circus along with a fiendishly catchy Nino Rota score featuring a child chorus that plays non-stop. As a child Fellini was told by his mother that a local prostitute was the Devil incarnate. He took his mother at her word yet his erotic fascination endured. Exposing puritanism as a symptom of thwarted desire the episode takes a puckish, playful view of sex as an irrepressible aspect of human existence.
Luchino Visconti takes over with 'Il lavoro' wherein his flair for satirizing the upper classes amidst opulent surroundings is well evident although the story is paper thin. Suave aristocrat Ottavio (Tomas Milian) and his media team try to dampen a scandal about his numerous flings with various call girls. With their marriage exposed as a sham, Ottavio's beautiful wife Pupe (Romy Schneider, seriously Ottavio why go out for hamburgers when you have steak at home?) ponders her fate only to realize she really hasn't any options. Once upon a time watching glamorous people lounge about trading barbed insults about their relationship was the height of chic cinema. Now it is mere glossy tedium. Comedy was never Visconti's forte but while 'Il lavoro' pulls off a poignant if slightly depressing punchline as Pupe realizes maintaining a loveless marriage is her full-time job, it is hard to care whether these two will divorce or not given they both seem so vacuous and self-obsessed. On the other hand no film where Romy Schneider, one of the finest and most beautiful actresses who ever lived, wanders around in naught but a pearl necklace can be total loss.
Finally Vittorio De Sica gives us 'La riffa' (The Raffle) starring the producer's wife lovely Sophia Loren in their follow-up to the award-winning Two Women (1961). Set amidst a bustling county fair Loren plays Zoe, a beautiful woman working at a shooting gallery who takes drastic measures to earn enough money for her family to pay their taxes. She offers herself as first prize in a lottery. Every old lecher in town is out to bag one night with Zoe but the eventual winner is mild-mannered church bell-ringer Caspar Formini (Alfo Vita). But while Zoe resigns herself to a night with Caspar, a handsome cowboy named Geno is not about to let this wreck their blossoming romance.
Earthy, upbeat and satirical yet with a zest for life, 'La riffa' is the episode closest to a Boccaccio story. It is a tragicomic fable with a degree of pathos and a captivating central figure in Sophia Loren yet still suffers some of the hysteria and misogyny that plague so much vintage Italian fare. The plot makes surprisingly little of poor Caspar's innocent yearning while the moral message is muddled at best implying the best way to convince a woman you love her is with a hearty slap or three. Try that in real life and see where it gets you.