La Moglie Piu Bella (The Most Beautiful Wife) (Blu-ray Review)10 Oct, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Ornella Muti, Alessio Orano, Tano Cimarosa.
Ornela Muti plays a 14-year-old in this fact-based fiction about a landmark Italian legal case, and one of the first things her equally assured and persuasive performance does is to send us to the reference books to see how old the actress was in real life. As it turns out, Muti really was 14 here, a full decade before she played Princess Aura in the verbally clumsy but visually witty Mike Hodges take on Flash Gordon (for all you pre-Ted Sam J. Jones fans out there). This is beyond extraordinary, though perhaps less so than the story that this Techniscope toughie from taskmaster writer/director Damiano Damiani was telling.
The movie begins with one of those rote disclaimers about how the story to follow has nothing to do with real events — an eye-roller to elicit one of those deadpanned Jack Webb “uh-uh’s” that Sgt. Joe Friday let go with when he knew some bookie or grand larceny specialist was lying through his teeth. In fact, the at least locally famed motivation here was a famous 1966 Sicilian legal case involving 15-year-old Franca Viola, who became an object of obsession by a small-time crook who was in his early 20s; he eventually kidnapped and repeatedly raped her (for eight days) when she elected not to follow through on what had been their engagement. Disgraced in the eyes of local society and, yes, even the church, all Viola had to do was marry her assailant and her so-called dishonor would be purged by this equally so-called act of rehabilitation, standard practice in those days. Backed by a father who apparently supported her more (at least at first) than his counterpart in the film, Franca instead took her onetime squeeze to court — and won. Though this said, the Italian law that said rape could be expunged by marriage wasn’t changed until more than a decade after The Most Beautiful Wife’s 1970 release.
Twilight Time has included about 45 minutes of bonus interviews carried over from the onetime NoShame standard DVD release, and one of the sundry production participants interviewed notes that Damiani liked to emphasize speed in his narrative, who possibly explains 109 minutes that really do zoom. Cast as a “Francesca” here, Muti and male lead Alessio Orano later married in real life (for a time), and these two highly photogenic specimens definitely click on a screen-chemistry level during their early scenes in which the courtship is slightly more conventional and on board, despite her limited years. Raised with her kid brother on what appears to be the outskirts of town, the Muti character’s humble parents can see certain tangible advantages in her relationship with a presentable young hood, a Mafia hopeful who may be going places. Francesca is, however, literally on the scene when her potential dreamboat becomes a major player in the rubout of an enemy, an act to indicate that the long-term ramifications of their union might be a life of festering resentments, emotional claustrophobia and worse. Think Elvis and Priscilla minus the felonies.
Abetting the clippety-clop pacing are several well-integrated storylines: Francesca and male lead Orano’s “Vito”; the latter’s relationship with Mafia superiors and his own fairly pea-brained subordinates; her conflicted parents; the townsfolk (who have their own opinions about the goings-on); and local police who are reasonably sympathetic to Francesca’s plight but whose equal interest (or more) is simply busting a local punk/headache just on general principles. Damiani has to temper it on the staging of the rape because Muti (and we have to keep pinching ourselves as a reminder) was a lot younger than she looks in at least some of the scenes here.
I don’t know Damiani’s work as much as I’d like, though I did just recently see and enjoy 1963’s The Empty Canvas (1964 in the U.S.) via an English-subtitled print in which Bette Davis was Italian-dubbed and Catherine Spaak proved that she held keys to many of the universe’s secrets regardless of the language. Photographically, Wife came at the beginning of the recently deceased Franco Di Giacomo’s career — just before he shot The Spider’s Strategem for Bernardo Bertolucci (how about a Blu-ray of it, now?) and later the gorgeous, award-winning Night of the Shooting Stars for the Taviani Brothers (released earlier this year on a Paolo & Vittorio three-fer by Cohen Media Group).
Twilight Time’s print of Wife is grainier than I prefer, but at least some of this has to do with Techniscope, a cheaper widescreen process that used less film stock, which resulted in a rougher, grittier look. I was in college with a friend who was a fiend for old three-strip Technicolor, and he persistently loathed Techniscope — claiming, in fact, that no good movie had ever utilized it. This is, of course, demonstrably not true, starting with the Sergio Leone Westerns, the original Alfie and Don Siegel’s Madigan, just off the top of my head. This said, many of the Techniscope movies the ended up being good or great had budgetary limitations before succeeding expectations.
This was apparently true of Wife, which may explain why the producers were willing to gamble their picture on an unknown actress. Muti, though, is still around and more than rewarded her professional benefactors at the time. To hear the story of her discovery related on the Blu-ray bonus extras, she was the kid sister of another actress who was being looked at; her young-adolescent spunk when stating that she out-and-out wanted to be an actress caught everyone off guard while generating admiration. You can see here that she probably identified big-time with the headstrong character she ended up playing.
Meanwhile, there’s one of those Ennio Morricone scores that’s isolated, Twilight Time fashion, on a separate track. It’s one of his crazy ones, too, with a lot of Jew’s harp action.