Coffee and Cello – Two Odd Italian Sex Comedies

Today is a side trip into a cinematic sub-genre about which I know very little – the commedia sexy all’italiana or Italian sex comedy, which was apparently a thing from around 1966-1981. This is a product of my belated attempts to catch up on the offerings of the Cineslut Film Club, which began in August with two Czechoslovakian witchcraft comedies which I adored. September’s double feature offered two films I would probably have never looked twice at otherwise, but since I joined up in order to be exposed to movies I might never otherwise have the opportunity to see, I thought I might as well dive in and watch them. They weren’t at all what I expected.

First up is Alberto Lattuada’s Come Have Coffee With Us [Venga a prendere il caffè da noi] (1970), based on the novel La spartizione (1964) by Piero Chiara. The opening sequence playing under the opening credits seems to come from some other movie entirely – we see an elderly man (Checco Rissone) performing experimental botany grafts in his greenhouse, interspersed with shots of the wide range of plant-life with which he has surrounded himself, before he has a heart attack and dies as the credits end. If you stripped this sequence away from the rest of the film and asked another filmmaker to complete it, I’d expect to see either a quiet and contemplative film exploring the effects of his passing, or a horror movie featuring rampant plant life, possibly accompanied by the resurrection of the deceased as a human-plant hybrid. What we see instead is a ground-level shot revealing the legs of three women as they visit his grave and walk away.

Emerenziano Paronzini (Ugo Tognazzi, the fur-clad Catchman in Barbarella) is a tax inspector in his late forties who has decided it’s time to become a respectable married man. He moves to an Italian town and visits the local church during the funeral service of Mansueto Tettamanzi, the wealthy old man from the opening sequence. Observing the deceased’s three mourning daughters, and learning of the size of their inheritance, he decides that one of them will be his wife. His plan relies on a blatant abuse of his position – he fabricates an exorbitant tax bill on their inheritance, expresses his deepest concern when visited by one of the distressed daughters, and arranges to be invited to their house to discuss their situation so he can help them find a way out of their non-existent problem. On a second visit he “gallantly” informs them that the only way out is for one of them to marry and that he will offer himself up for that purpose.

The most striking departure from the expected format is that the three daughters are all presented as unattractive middle-aged women with no other prospect of marriage, rather than the more standard selection of nubile young women in their early 20s. Despite the movie’s initial representation of the women as doomed to remain spinsters, they are all to some extent presented as legitimately desirable as the story develops, without going the cliched route of the woman who takes down her hair and removes her glasses to reveal a classic beauty – although the director has cheated in his selection of actresses. Fortunata, the oldest and most emotionally mature, is played by 45-year-old Angela Goodwin in her screen debut, the only one of the three actresses to even come close to the age of the character she’s portraying. I had the impression that Tarsilla was intended to be the middle child, although she’s played by the youngest actress – 27-year-old Francesca Romana Coluzzi – and is the only one of the three who displays any interest in other men during the film. The third daughter, the shy harpist Camilla, is played by 35-year-old ex-ballerina Milena Vukotic, who has the most extensive and prestigious acting career of the three, having worked with Fellini, Buñuel, Tarkovsky, Zeffirelli and Cocteau.

Paronzini cultivates the interest of all three women but decides to marry the eldest, Fortunata. Tarsilla begins an affair with a young Frenchman (Jean-Jacques Fourgeaud), who also has designs on her fortune, but she throws him over after Paronzini returns from the honeymoon and comes onto her. (The Frenchman had until this point been the most prominent supporting character, but the writer seems to have no idea what to do with him after this, sending him off to be arrested by Swiss border guards for no apparent reason.) Inevitably, he then starts sleeping with the third sister as well. The only other person aware of these goings on is the maid (Valentine), who keeps a log book of his regimented nightly rotation of visits to each sister’s bedroom.

At this point the movie was starting to seem rather like The Beguiled (1971), in which Clint Eastwood’s wounded Union soldier sleeps his way through an entire boarding school before they discover his duplicity and murder him. Unfortunately, Paronzini’s comeuppance is more limited and unsatisfying – and it’s at about this point in the movie that the subtitle track dropped out, so I’m uncertain whether or not the three sisters ever learn what’s really been going on. All I can say for sure is that during a dinner in which the smug, self-satisfied git is having a delightful time, he suddenly has a stroke and collapses. He’s left paralysed and wheelchair-bound, but the sisters dote on him happily and seem content with their lot. Which… what?! I suppose it’s a sort of punishment, as he was a bit of a control freak and has now lost all control over his own life, but he’s clearly still being well looked after by the women he deceived. I’m glad that the sisters are happy, but it’s hard to read this ending as at all satisfying and I can’t say that the rest of the film was particularly substantial either. And yet somehow, this film won two Nastro d’Argento awards (which are voted on by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists) – one for best screenplay and one for best supporting actress (Francesca Romana Coluzzi). I won’t begrudge Coluzzi her award, but I don’t understand the screenplay award at all.

Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Il merlo maschio [The Male Blackbird aka The Naked Cello] (1971) is a far more interesting film, this time adapted from a short story – Il complesso di Loth (1968) by Luciano Bianciardi. The story builds more slowly than the last film, but it contains more real humour and is more artfully filmed. The first 30 minutes is spent gradually establishing the life of Niccolò Vivaldi (Lando Buzzanca), a dissatisifed cello player who longs to stand out from the crowd. He is (apparently) so indistinguishably average that he spends most of his life being not just ignored, but actively incapable of being noticed or remembered – except by the two cellists who sit on either side of him, who constantly play practical jokes on him and sabotage his performances in a way which would lead to him losing his job if the conductor could ever remember who he was. The rehearsal and performance scenes take full advantage of their setting in the majestic Verona Arena and add an element of class which helps to elevate the film.

The one person who not only consistently remembers Niccolò, but appreciates him for his own virtues and sees him as handsome, is his wife Costanza (Laura Antonelli), who was captivated by his ability to mimic the mating call of the male blackbird – but by the time we are introduced to Niccolò, it’s clear that his growing feelings of inadequacy have made him oblivious and/or non-responsive to her efforts to keep their sex life alive. Until, one day, he takes her to her latest medical appointment and discovers not only that the sight of his naked wife being examined by the doctor reawakens his interest, but that she is apparently such a paragon that anybody who sees her naked notices and remembers him for being lucky enough to be her husband. He also discovers that he can recreate this excitement by looking at photographs he takes of her while she’s sleeping.

After a series of misunderstandings they actually begin to communicate about their mutual needs, and as they begin to explore how to allow for Niccolò’s discoveries about himself the movie somehow manages to communicate the improvement in their marital relations in both a comic and sympathetic way which doesn’t seem overly exploitative. Campanile continues to balance the material even as Niccolò’s desires begin to become more unbalanced, requiring increasingly more elaborately orchestrated scenarios (such as booking a train journey with his wife and arranging for her to be “accidentally” seen naked through the carriage window by country labourers). Although he has her consent for these situations, and they’re portrayed with a light comic touch, it’s noticeable that her own desires and simpler kinks (the repetition of his blackbird impression) are taking a back seat to what it is becoming an uncontrollable mania. When his increasingly elaborate fantasies finally exceed her limits, Costanza puts her foot down, leading to a breakdown which leaves him unable to remember his name or address. Although Costanza manages to head off his complete mental breakdown by staging his concert fantasy, this ultimately results in his confinement to a mental hospital (or its comedy equivalent – it bears little resemblance to any legitimate mental health institution).

The final scene is jarringly lacking in subtlety compared to the rest of the film, weakening its overall effect. I can’t help but feel that the director would have been capable of delivering a more nuanced variant on this story which allowed the couple to develop a better equilibrium in their relationship and treated Niccolò’s candaulism more realistically, but then I suppose it would no longer be the comedy that it set out to be. Despite this lack of evenhanded treatment, Laura Antonelli is so patient, compassionate and entertaining in her portrayal of Costanza that the film still, on the whole, succeeds despite the more heavy-handed aspects.

Although this is the first Campanile film I’ve seen, it’s not the first time I’ve come across his name and this has certainly made me curious to explore his work further. Lattuada’s film may not have done much for me, but since I didn’t have particularly high expectations of either film, I consider a 50% hit rate to be a rousing success.

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