The politics of war and occupation are almost always dicey. Long after the machinations of battle have faded, and the questioning of “how resistant” an occupied country’s people “really” were, there is also the stigma. British jokes about how uncivilized the American colonies were after the War of Independence were fodder for two hundred years. Derogatory statements about the ease with which the Nazis marched into Paris during WWII , and the Italians yielded to Fascism, can still be heard in shadowy whispers, but the memory fades with time. The stigma still pervades however in books and cinema. And as friendly the relations, and robust the tourist trade has always been with Italy, it was only a little over 70 years ago that we were at war with them. The tenuous and complicated relationship Mussolini had with Hitler was only compounded when he was stripped of his command and his country spiraled into chaos until the end of World War II.
This highly charged atmosphere is the backdrop for one of Producer/Director Stanley Kramer’s final films, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, recently released on Blu-ray through Twilight Time. The story is about the sleepy Tuscan town of Santa Vittoria, greeting the news of Mussolini’s fall with apathy. The non-reaction of the town is indicative of the nebulous hold the dictator and the Fascist movement had on rural citizenry. At first, the denizens realize this puts the one representative of the Cosa Nostra, who has obviously held the town in a strangle-hold, out of business, as he is sent running from the township. The City fathers who had been placed in their positions by the Fascists, worry who will take the blame when the Allies, if ever, invade. At that moment, the town drunk, Italo Bambolini, climbs to the top of the water tower to paint over his screed from earlier days supporting Mussolini, but paralyzed with both realization of the err of his ways, as well as a fear of heights, he drinks himself to the brink of suicide. Luckily, his daughter prevails on Fabio, the rascally young love of her life, to rescue him. Unable to talk Bambolini down, he whips the viewing crowd into a cheer for the man, which gives him the confidence to climb down. It’s at that moment that the city fathers are watching, and decide to name this clown as Mayor of Santo Vittoria (hoping that he will take the heat for their disastrous party’s demise).
Usually, the town drunk turned lawman is a subplot in a much grander scheme (see Destry Rides Again) but when your drunk is Anthony Quinn, you know you’re in for a story of redemption that will take center stage. Quinn, the Hollywood placeholder for every ethnicity, is yet again convincing as the Italian layabout who discovers a greater man hidden within his wine-soaked threads. When word spreads that the Nazis are taking over outlying towns, and basically ransacking them for all their goods, Quinn decides he needs to protect the town by hiding its major export; wine. And we’re talking all 1.3 million bottles of it.
To the consternation of his wife (played by the magnificent as always Anna Magnani), he enlists the town in moving the wine, bottle by bottle, out of the wine cellars and into Etruscan caves within the mountain side the town is built on, then walling the caves up. The centerpiece of the film is watching this massive undertaking transpire, with rows of villagers lined up, passing bottle after bottle.
Once the Nazis “occupy,” they “sweetly” pillage in the name of the Reich, and finally settle on the wine. Bambolini, though, is crafty, and has left just enough in their cellars to “seem” like this amount could be the low end of the town’s production. Still, Captain von Prum (Hardy Krüger) is just as wily, and presses Bambolini, ever-so-gently, for the rest of the stash. Bambolini finally gives, on 100,000 more bottles, and so the cat and mouse continues, shifting from light comedy to serious drama as the new mayor and his townfolk come under greater scrutiny and risk, all to protect the one important product of Santa Vittoria.
Producer-Director Stanley Kramer, always known for his “message” pictures (On the Beach, Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind) won a bet that he couldn’t make a raucous comedy, delivering It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Santo Vittorio falls into a strange grey area, with some very broad comic strokes staged up against moments of subtlety and tenderness. This clash of styles doesn’t always work out, and the film sometimes feels meandering. Adapted from the book by Robert Chrichton, there are several subplots going on (an injured Italian soldier – played by then singing sensation Sergio Franchi – is nurtured back to health by a Contessa (Virna Lisi) who may or may not have been a wealthy courtesan of the Fascist party returned in exile to the town, and Bambolini’s daughter does the wooing of the young student, played by an unbelievably young Giancarlo Giannini) and these tend to create a stop-start, halting energy.
It can also be argued that the characterization of Bambolini, and all the townsfolk, are one dimensional cliches of Italians. This brings into question the film’s politics, which seem muddled. The impression one gets is that the villagers are lazy, and take on whatever politics are forced upon them. Should they fight off the Nazis, or bend willfully? These are definitely the questions Kramer and novelist Crichton are most interested in, but to render the characters as stereotypes makes the more politically vigilant “beg” the question – how should we feel watching this rape (one scene is literally a rape) of a town and its people, take place? And is Quinn’s Bambolini a shrewd manipulator, working within a system he cannot change (much like Tevye is under Russian rule in Fiddler on the Roof) or a turncoat, playing the sycophant too willingly?
The Secret of Santa Vittoria did not fare well at the box-office, as the tide had turned for the movie-going public. Easy Rider had exploded on the scene just 3 months before, and films that reflected the old Hollywood machine were becoming a dying breed. Luckily, Twilight Time’s restored print allows modern viewers the opportunity to judge for themselves. It may not be Zorba the Greek or Lawrence of Arabia, but Anthony Quinn’s bigger than life performance reveals just one of the many surprises that Santa Vittorio kept secret…until now.