Wednesday, May 9, 2012

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WIFE (La moglie piu bella, 1970)

Damiano Damiani's based-on-real-events Mafia melodrama is a kind of companion piece to his earlier literary adaptation Day of the Owl (aka Mafia in the U.S.) in its emphasis on the power of organized crime over ordinary people. It differs from the pessimistic Owl in its celebration of one young woman's rebellion not just against crime but an entire social order. Damiani and his writers were inspired by the story of Franca Viola, who defied taboos by accusing of rape a mafia crony who had kidnapped her and violated her in the expectation that she'd marry him or face unendurable shame at the loss of her honor. Viola and her parents defied mafia intimidation to see Franca's attacker brought to justice, and her case led to changes in Italian law eliminating a man's right to absolve himself of rape charges by marrying his victim. In Damiani's version Francesca Cimarosa (14 year old Ornella Muti in her film debut) has a more lonely struggle for justice that suggests an attempt to identify her with the larger radical youth movement. She's targeted for marriage by an ambitious young mafioso, Vito Juvara (Alessio Orano), whose mentor has advised him to take a wife as soon as possible, preferably a poor girl. Vito goes through the motions of courtship, chasing away one possible rival, but expects Francesca to fall for him unconditionally. But especially after she witnesses a mob hit in the middle of a busy street, the girl has qualms about her suitor. His increasingly impatient dismissal of her questions doesn't exactly endear him further to her, and finally she jilts him on the day they were supposed to get their marriage license. By then he's willing to blow it all off, finding her more trouble than she's worth, but after rival gangsters mock him he decides he's got to regain respect by taking her by force.

Vito takes some godfatherly advice (above) and applies it to Francesca (below)

Owing to Muti's age (she was given her stage name to evade child-labor laws) the rape is presented with almost classical reticence. The real horror comes afterward, when Vito practically drags her to an "engagement party" surrounded by piggish relatives and criminals. Damiani and Ennio Morricone make an interesting choice here to score the engagement party to the same music that played over the mob hit, emphasizing the moral horror of the experience for Francesca. Finally she can't take any more and runs away. Defying not just Vito but the expectations of the entire community, including her parents, Francesca denounces Vito to the carabinieri for kidnapping her. The cops have been trying to bring Vito down throughout the picture but initially refuse to take Francesca seriously. They take her less seriously, however sympathetic some officers may be, when her parents and little brother -- he was kidnapped with her -- contradict her account of the incident. The parents plainly fear Vito, while the brother has a fantasy of killing him when he grows up. Meanwhile, the community regards Francesca as a dishonorable stool pigeon.

After reading the Wikipedia account of Franca Viola, I noticed a significant difference in Damiani's fictionalized variation of the theme. In the movie, Vito threatens to burn down the Cimarosa family barn, where the results of a year's labor are stored, unless Francesca recants her testimony. In the Viola case, the mafia did burn the barn. In Most Beautiful Wife, Francesca herself torches the place as a scorched-earth rebellion against her cowardly father. Her thought is that if they have nothing to lose, her parents will no longer fear testifying against Vito. It's the film's most radical statement, a repudiation of the materialism that reduces people to dependence upon injustice, and for her trouble her father repudiates her utterly. The townsfolk continue to shun her as both a stoolie and a fallen woman, and even the local priest advises her to submit, marry Vito, and not worry about finding happiness in marriage. The only people willing to take her side are Vito's gangster rivals, who talk about bringing him to justice but actually want her to set him up for a hit. He survives the attempt, but can't prevail over Francesca. When her parents finally crack after seeing another girl beaten up for siding with their daughter, their corroborating testimony dooms Vito to prison. The film ends on two curious notes. Preparing to depart for prison, Vito smacks one of his cronies who calls Francesca a filthy whore. Then Francesca sees Vito taken to jail, and as her friends gather round to hail her as a hero, she bursts into tears.

La moglie piu bella is more concerned with emotional than physical violence. It's less an exploitation picture than an unlikely blend of the mafia genre and the sensibility of Samuel Richardson, the 18th century English novelist who specialized in portraying young women of embattled virtue. It works largely because of Muti's precocious intensity as a girl whose compassionate outrage -- she's the only one who approaches and attempts to comfort the hit victim in a panicking crowd -- is stronger than fear. Damiano isn't a flashy stylist, but in collaboration with cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo and production designer Umberto Turco he frames the action for maximum dramatic impact in authentic locations.


The picture pays respect to an ideal of justice but ends up a kind of tragic thwarted romance as well. Why does Vito never have Francesca killed, after all? Alessio Orano gives a suggestive performance as a character trying to play a role but ultimately tiring of it, incapable of following through one way or another. Throughout the picture Vito and Francesca argue over how to respect each other. The film leaves the impression that Vito finally respects her, and that the respect may be mutual, and even more than respect, however late it comes. Damiani may have a larger point to make about the true basis of the real respect on which a just society must be founded, but his film should work for any viewer -- even the English dub is passable -- as a personal drama of courage prevailing against heavy odds.
TheGialloGrindhouse has uploaded an English-dubbed trailer to YouTube. Take a look.


venoms5 said...

And I'm still kicking myself for putting off buying this DVD till after it went OOP and up in value.

Excellent assessment, Sam, as always.

Samuel Wilson said...

I feel that way about a lot of NoShame discs, Venom. Not all of those titles are likely to get picked up by other companies. Thanks goodness Netflix picked up a lot of them.