by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival
Scene from Mario Monicelli's 'La Grande Guerra'

Mario Monicelli's 1959 'Grande Guerra' Takes Center Stage

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 September 2009


The last thing Giuseppe Tornatore, whose 'Baarìa' was the opening, in-competition movie of this year's Venice Film Festival on Wednesday night, could have expected was to be upstaged by a film that had won a Golden Lion half a century ago.

Mario Monicelli's 1959 masterpiece, 'La grande guerra' (The Great War), was given public and press screenings on the day before the festival officially opened. This was a controversial film in its time and was subsequently cut, so this version, painstakingly restored from the original negative, is being screened in its entirety for the first time since it was originally shown on the Lido 50 years ago.

The 'war to end all wars' is seen through the eyes of two reluctant recruits, the Milanese Giovanni (Vittorio Gassman) and the Roman Oreste (Alberto Sordi), and a young prostitute Constantina (Silvana Mangano) whom they encounter in a bombed-out town behind the lines on the Austrian front in northeastern Italy. Their fellow draftees come from all over Italy, and there is a constant joshing between them about the supposed vices of their various regions, much of it in local dialects that are often barely mutually comprehensible. But the men form a camaraderie as a result of the appalling conditions they endure in the trenches, as their numbers are grimly and relentlessly reduced in combat.

Mr. Monicelli, now 94, is a well-known director of comedy, and this is at times a picaresque tale, as Giovanni and Oreste become slackers-in-arms, using all their wit and skill to avoid difficult and dangerous duties and by hook or by crook to survive the conflict. But the mood, as it swings between comedy and tragedy, is expertly balanced. And even the most minor characters are deftly and memorably portrayed.

The battle scenes are extraordinarily convincing, sometimes taking on the appearance of silent newsreels of the era, but in sharper focus, and the choreography, involving thousands of participants, is exceptionally skillful.

While the dialogue is often verbose and satirical, much is also conveyed by visual detail, the more telling for being understated. To take but one example: when the train taking Giovanni and Oreste to the front stops at a station, it is passed by a hospital train coming in the other direction.

This train is not full of groaning wounded, but is completely silent, its windows white-washed, a train of ghosts.

It can only be hoped that this restored version of 'La grande guerra' will gain the wider international distribution it merits through DVD, although ideally it should be viewed on the wide screen.

Mr. Tornatore's 'Baarìa,' like Mr. Monicelli's film, uses dialect, in this case the Sicilian of the director's own home town, Bagheria, familiarly known there as Baarìa. (The film is subtitled in Italian.) In contrast, however, Mr. Tornatore seems to have lost the plot.

Whereas 'La grande guerra' - the first time that World War I had been seriously dealt with in Italian cinema - was carefully researched from contemporary photographs, film and first-hand accounts, 'Baarìa' appears to be inspired more by the vision of Sicily offered by previous film directors.

The story covers three generations of a family from the 1920s to the 1980s - through the Fascist period, the liberation of Sicily by the Allies, the political activism of the 1960s and the increasing prosperity of the 1970s and 1980s. The central character, Peppino (Francesco Scianna), starts life as a shepherd boy, who falls in love first with the Communist Party and then with the most beautiful girl in town - Mannina (Margareth Madè). But for Mannina's parents, his membership in the party makes him wholly unsuitable to marry their daughter.

However, love triumphs, they marry, have children and he moves slowly and steadily up the local party structure, finally being elected a town councilor.

Although a central theme of the film is politics, and especially politics in post-World War II Sicily, this element is never properly confronted.

At one point, Peppino is chosen to join a delegation of the party to the Soviet Union. When he returns, he confides to a colleague that he has seen 'terrible things' there. But his allegiance to the party never wavers and this is the last we hear about what happened.

The elaborate sets took a year to build and shooting lasted 25 weeks. The film is visually lush, but its thunderous orchestral score quickly becomes trying and intrusive. The saga is crowded with characters, but none of them is fully realized. Many, such as the local mafiosi, are cardboard cutouts. Almost all of the big-name Italian actors listed in the credits have small parts - and if you blink, you will miss the non-speaking Monica Bellucci altogether.

In 'Amarcord' (1973), Federico Fellini's portrait of his hometown of Rimini, the director managed to be quirky and affectionate without sliding into folkloric cliché and sentimentality, as Mr. Tornatore constantly does. Mr. Tornatore also resorts to a series of dream sequences, which finally add nothing to the story, and to magic-realist elements that seem equally extraneous.

One of the explanations for the origins of the name Bagheria is that it comes from 'Bab el-gherid,' Arabic for the 'gateway of the wind.' More uncharitable viewers may come to the conclusion that this two-and-half-hour long movie is indeed little more than cinematographic hot air.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024