The Most Beautiful Wife (1970) is an Italian film written by Damiano Damiani, Enrico Ribulsi, and Sofia Scandurra. Directed by Damiani, the movie suggests that there is something innate about courage, but that it’s also a rarity.
Ah, Ornella Muti! What a treasure! The Most Beautiful Wife is her acting debut, and at the very young age of fourteen, she does an impressive job. I’d thought I’d first seen Muti when I reviewed the 1974 film Appasionata for this site. But I didn’t realize that I’d actually first seen her in the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, in which she plays Princess Aura. This kind of sums up Muti’s career. She’ll appear in art-house stuff like Appasionata and The Most Beautiful Wife and also pulpier stuff, succeeding at both. Whatever keeps her working. Just the other night, my wife and I watched her in a made for TV Brazilian melodrama called Um Crime Nobre in which she was the only interesting thing about the film. This kind of professionalism goes a long way toward explaining the longevity of her career. She just seems to like what she does.
And what a wonderful personality! She was still in school when she was cast for The Most Beautiful Wife, so she pretended to be sick for the entire two months of the production. Yes, well, with some help from her parents, I’m sure. But still, what a wonderful story. Speaking of faking sick: In 2010, she took a sick day on a play in which she was performing and flew from Italy to St. Petersburg to have dinner with Vladimir Putin at a charity dinner. There was no denying the incident. There were pictures to prove it. And, Jesus, she was actually sentenced to prison for skipping work. Luckily, her sentence was suspended and she was allowed to pay 30,000 Euros instead. Crazy.
As far as her debut goes, Muti is already a great actress. Very natural, too, especially in moments where she has only a few seconds to convey a sense of deep pain and anguish. And there is a lot of anguish in this film.
The Most Beautiful Wife is based on the astonishing 1965 case of Franca Vola, who refused a so-called “rehabilitating marriage,” a horrendous custom aided by the law in which a woman who was raped could restore her “honor” by marrying the man who brutalized her. A woman who lost her virginity before marriage was considered far more shameful than the act of rape itself. In fact, according to the law, the man involved could not be charged with a crime if he married his victim. A truly savage thing, this, and almost unimaginable that this monstrous law wasn’t abolished until 1983, nearly twenty years after the Franca Vola case.
So, then, the particulars of Vola’s case: She was a fifteen year old Sicilian girl from a small village who was engaged to 23-year-old Filippo Melodia until his first arrest. After that, she broke up with him and got engaged to another man. Consumed with jealousy and rage, Melodia and some friends armed themselves with guns, kidnapping Vola and her eight-year-old brother, and taking them to Melodia’s sister’s house. There, Melodia raped her, thinking that she would marry him to restore her honor, as had happened so many times before with so many other victims. But, with the overwhelming support of her family, who, unlike the family in The Most Beautiful Wife, were behind their daughter from the very beginning, she went to the police and had Melodia charged for his crimes. As you can imagine, this was not an easy thing to do. The family was completely ostracized from their little town and even had their vineyard and cottage burned down. But they persisted, and they won, and although the law wasn’t changed until the early 80’s, this was a first big step in actually recognizing a woman’s agency in Southern Italy. In an article at Notchesblog.com, Niahm Cullen wrote about the case: “The idea of rape as a violent crime against the person, rather than an offense to society or the family was still beginning to take shape in Italian law.” This is astonishing stuff.
A few words on the screen at the beginning of the film attempt to distance the movie from the real case by saying that it’s not based on any real events. No doubt a legal necessity of some sort, a mere five years removed from the actual case. However, although there are some major changes, such as the father’s cowardice and the fiance being involved in the mafia, it’s an absurd claim that the story of a fifteen-year-old Sicilian girl who is raped for the purpose of forcing her to marry her attacker somehow wasn’t based on this very publicized case.
Story aside for the moment, this movie is close to a technical masterpiece. The maestro himself, Ennio Morricone, provides the music, which is a good start for any movie, really. The music, while used sparingly, is quite intense, though the mouth harp made it sound a little weird to my ears. But I’m not sure where we would be without the music during the harrowing scene in which Francesca (Ornella Muti) is forced to have dinner with her attacker and his family to celebrate their “wedding” the day after she’s been brutally raped. Voices overlap as the music swells and we get the sense of real panic, a kind of out of body anxiety at the very core of Francesca’s soul. When the music reaches its peak, Francesca stands up and says “Good night to all,” and storms out of the place, convinced now that she’s going to pursue justice.
Director Damiano Damiani makes great use of very tight shots in which one or at most two people are in frame, closely cropped, visually illustrating the suffocating that’s going on inside these characters. Damiani goes tight like this when he wants to emphasize the tension of a scene, constricting the image to the point that we feel as though it might snap. Examples of this include the scene at the beginning when Vito (Alessio Orano), Francesca’s eventual brutalizer, is talking to mob boss Don Antonio, as he’s about to be carted off to prison. The boss is pretty much handing the business off to Vito, if only temporarily, and the tightness of the shot emphasizes the insane pressure going on inside Vito even though outwardly he’s calm and cool. When Damiani pulls the camera back, we’re surprised to see that the room they’re in is actually wide open. Close up, it feels as though they’re talking in a closet.
The acting by the two leads is excellent. Alessio Orano is damn scary as 22-year-old Vito. He’s immensely attractive, but there’s no tenderness about his face. You know from the first few seconds that this is a man who has known violence his entire life. Orano conveys Vito’s cruel and violent nature through his very, very, cold eyes. Muti’s eyes are always telling a story, too. When we see Vito violently push her onto a bed after he’s kidnapped her, Damiani cuts away to a conversation between two thugs outside the room. He obviously couldn’t show a fourteen-year-old Muti being raped, so he had to do something to show some time has passed. When he goes back into the room, we see a fully clothed Muti, crying of course, but in addition to sadness, her eyes convey a powerful rage. The audience doesn’t need to see anything more to know that something terrible has happened. Something irrevocable. This is the kind of powerful performance Muti gives throughout the movie. She’s never less than convincing.
Before we meet Muti’s Francesca, we meet Vito as the movie opens and he talks to mob boss Don Antonio, about to do his first stretch in jail in a long while. When one of his thugs tells Don Antonio that prisoners are allowed some TV time, he remarks that prison is too soft on people. He says this partially tongue-in-cheek, but there is, of course, a menace to his voice. This is a world of very, very, tough men, hardened and unemotional beyond their passion for violence. This is the kind of world Vito is immersed in when Don Antonio tells him that he needs to find a wife. “Even better if she’s poor,” the mob boss says, implying rather incorrectly, as it will turn out, that a poor woman has everything to lose by rocking the boat.
For her part, Francesca is engaged to her rather dull cousin. But Vito is quickly able to chase him off, with the help of a gun, of course. Which is fine by Francesca. She’s totally enamoured by Vito. Her parents, however, are immediately terrified. They know that any minor amount of freedom, what little control they had over their lives, is gone now. They are powerless against a gangster like Vito. So they sit back and watch as their daughter gets seduced by this criminal.
But soon a man is assassinated in the street and Francesca is a witness to the crime. Blood everywhere. A very gruesome scene. And she knows that Vito has something to do with it. Still, even this incident isn’t enough to get Francesca to leave Vito. Not immediately, at least. But after a heated argument with him, she suggests they take some time apart. Vito is aghast. A young woman from peasant stock talking to him like this? No, by now Vito is convinced that Francesca is his property.
The kidnapping is a horrific scene. A gang of guys, including Vito, firing guns in the air, grabbing Francesca and her younger brother as they both scream. Really heart wrenching stuff.
The idea of class consciousness and a rigid social structure permeates The Most Beautiful Wife. Francesca’s family is poor, so poor, in fact that they live in a one-room shack. Everything they have is in a little barn. When Vito kills one of their goats, it’s a major loss. Vito’s threat to burn the barn is enough to get Francesca’s father to turn against her, to absolutely refuse to support her story when she goes to the police. Indeed, when you have nothing, you have so much more to lose.
We want to tell this man, this father who readily admits he’s a “coward,” to help his daughter. We want to yell it at the screen. But it’s not so easy, is it? We’d all like to think we’d go all the way for a loved one, but this is an abstract thought, at least until the shit really hits the fan. And so Francesca’s family lies, too afraid of what might happen to them if they defend their daughter. Not only that, but at one point, they actually consider signing a statement against her, saying she made the whole thing up. Francesca’s father is still afraid until the end. It takes witnessing a mob of women beating a girl senseless because she had the audacity to stand up for Francesca before he finally acts, and this doesn’t happen until the final minutes of the movie.
But Francesca’s family aren’t the only ones who are afraid. Francesca at one point tells Vito that he’s scared of her and of course he denies it, but the truth is that he’s terrified of what she represents: a strong woman who could be his downfall.
And what of Francesca’s struggle? This is rebellion, sure, but a lonely one. At one point Francesca meets up with an older woman who was the victim of a rehabilitation marriage and the woman is so beaten down that she can only say, sullenly, that Francesca will “get used to it.” And that’s how most, if not all of the women in this small community see this thing. Words like “responsibility” are violently misused here. This struggle is an individual one that so upends the social order that the victims of this culture are the ones who react the most violently. What of their sacrifices, after all? At one point, a crowd of women physically drag Francesca to a priest where he tells her, “A woman endures. She doesn’t share the pleasure.” But Francesca’s struggle is one against simple endurance.
In the end, finally, her family supports her and makes statements against her accuser to the police. Finally, we’re not talking about an individual against the world. We have a family together, and this is enough to begin a movement.
But where does that leave Francesca? Damiani’s final shot is of Francesca, crying because she’s just learned that Vito might get up to ten years in prison for his crime, walking lonely down the street of her small town. Damiani pulls the camera back, until Francesca becomes a tiny figure in an immense landscape.