December 27, 2011
On December 6th, RaroVideo released two films from director Alberto Lattuada on DVD. Relatively unknown in the U.S., he was an eclectic talent who came up under the sway of neorealism, and who later made an uncategorizable series of literary adaptations and bitterly satirical farces. I have asked a Ph.D candidate in Italian Studies at NYU, Alberto Zambenedetti, to help me discuss his work. Mr. Zambenedetti will write about The Overcoat (1952), widely considered his masterpiece, and I will look at Come Have Coffee With Us(1970), one of his late sex comedies.
Alberto Lattuada’s 1952 adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Overcoat (1834) can be considered, together with Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951), one of the very few forays into the Surreal and the Fantastic in Italian postwar film. Iconic screenwriter Cesare Zavattini contributed to both screenplays, and both films express a clear desire to move past Neorealism’s aesthetic and narrative model. In this sense, the story of The Overcoat‘s protagonist, Carmine De Carmine, and his daily struggle for survival in an indifferent if not outright hostile world, resembles De Sica and Zavattini’s Umberto D.(1952). Yet the lofty literary source offers Lattuada the opportunity to crack down on the structures of power and their hypocrisy with a venom and a pessimism of which his contemporaries were not capable. The exquisite ambiguities of Gogol’s philosophical tale find a correlative in the depiction of the bureaucratic apparatus, which has overtones of both Fascism’s militaristic hierarchy and of the Christian Democrats’ misguided appeals to decency and decorum. After all, The Overcoat tells the tale of a victim who comes back from the dead to haunt the society who abused him: what story could be more suited to represent the psyche of a country who lived through over twenty years of dictatorship and then expunged it from its collective consciousness?
Comedian Renato Rascel delivers an interesting and nuanced performance in his first dramatic role, for which he was awarded a Silver Ribbon in 1953 by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. Famous for his singing voice and perfect diction (he is best known in the U.S. for his original song “Arrivederci Roma” and for the film The Seven Hills of Rome, dir. Roy Rowland), the small-framed actor is used by Lattuada mainly for his Chaplinesque pantomime and his distinct appearance, which allow for a contained physical comedy. A meek calligraphist and copyist, De Carmine occupies the lowest rung in the ladder of public servants; he is close enough to the sun to know that it exists, yet he is too far to feel the warmth of its rays. He is the nexus between the starving populace and the new aristocracy of bureaucrats, a self-involved class that turns a deaf ear to the needs of their constituency and basks in the glory of power and wealth. To the protagonist, the fine overcoat represents the dream of social mobility and, perhaps, even the love of Caterina, the town mayor’s young and luscious lover (played by Yvonne Sanson, star of many melodramas directed by Raffaello Mattarazzo).
However, in what is perhaps Lattuada’s major departure from Gogol, De Carmine displays an unfaltering sense of justice and loyalty to the lower classes, themes that were very dear to the eclectic director. De Carmine marvels at the mayor’s absurd spending of public money, and he tries to have him read a plea for a pension on behalf of a disenfranchised neighbor, to no avail. Doors, screens, windows, and hallways are used as devices to keep the two worlds separate, with De Carmine shuttling between them in an ever-growing frenzy that, when he is robbed of his precious overcoat, sentence him to a fever-induced death. Remnants of Lattauda’s neorealist masterpiece Il bandito (1946) can be noticed in the extended ballroom scene that depicts high society as shallow and unsympathetic, as well as in the film’s attention to Pavia’s urban landscape. Absolutely unforgettable is the scene in which De Carmine’s horse-drawn hearse interrupts the pompous mayor’s speech, forcing him to remove his hat and salute the body of the (temporarily) vanquished hero. –Alberto Zambenedetti
Lattuada ended the 1960s with L’amica (1969), a sex romp about a bourgeois wife cuckolding her husband, and he began the 70s with Come Have Coffee With Us (1970), a sex comedy viewed from the male’s perspective. The man is Emerenziano (Ugo Tognazzi, La Cage aux Folles), a middle-aged accountant seeking “caresses, warmth and comfort” in his dotage in the small town of Luino, on the banks of Lake Maggiore. Introduced adjusting his tie in a mirror, he is a picture of aging vanity, albeit one without many outlets. He is shown living in a rather drab flat, his prized object a copy of Paolo Mantegazza’s “Physiology of Love”, a 19th century book that encourages one to cut through fruit to release sexual urges. Emerenziano has clearly not sown many oats, a fastidious man who clips his cigarettes in half to avoid too much pleasure. But now he has decided to indulge himself, and he targets the Tettamanzi girls, three sisters who had just inherited a great sum of money from their naturalist father. A trio of exaggeratedly ugly sisters (not unlike Cinderella’s), with upturned noses, beehive hairdos and unflattering cloth duds, Emerenziano assumes he’d at least get warmth and comfort from one of them.
Lattuada emphasizes their freakish nature with insert close-ups of their relative deformities, of Tarsilla’s mole, Camilla’s mousy face and twitchy gestures, and Fortunata’s mountainous head of hair. These shots from Emerenziano’s POV are much more about the man’s twisted worldview than the ladies’ desirability – Lattuada appears as a doctor to tend to the ailing Emerenziano, an affliction that is as much psychological as physical.. The girls are housed like their father’s taxidermied owls, a trio of spinsters with little connection the outside world until Emerenziano swaggers in and introduces them to the ways of the flesh. His strategy becomes clear when he creates one healthy apple from three rotten ones in their pantry. For he soon decides to marry Fortunata, but after they return from their honeymoon, he spends time in every sister’s boudoir. The maid dutifully keeps a schedule of Emerenziano’s manic schedule, fulfilling his wish for “caresses” and then some. He lives out all his teenage fantasies, but in an aging man’s body, and his libido is far too voracious for his heart to keep up.
A poson-tipped fable of middle-age delusions, small-town desperation and the dangers of sexual repression, Come Have Coffee With Us finds Lattuada working out some familiar themes in a graceful manner. Never uproarious but always amusing, it’s a solid late entry in Lattuada’s impressive career. Well received upon its original release, it eventually came out in the U.S. in 1973, to a similarly pleased reception. Vincent Canby in the NY Times enthused about Tognazzi’s intricately fussy performance: “The actor is a model of what I can describe only as a thoroughly masculine but dainty self-assurance, whether he is carefully placing a toothpick in an ashtray (after cleaning one ear and one fingernail) or pompously explaining to the three sisters, on an early meeting, how an old war wound has left him with a troublesome (but not incapacitating) deviated rectum.” Presented in an HD transfer from a 35mm negative, the RaroVideo DVD is a superb edition of a morbidly funny Italian comedy. -R. Emmet Sweeney