Fun times! For Hit Me with Your Best Shot this week, Nathaniel has assigned Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, one of the finest examples of that marvelously oddball genre, the 1960s Italian Anthology Film. And, on top of it, perhaps the most uncharacteristic work ever directed by Neorealist master Vittorio De Sica.
The film is made up of three individual segments, each named for the woman played in it by Sophia Loren; cumulatively, they explore the sexual mores of three different slices of Italian life, as Loren and Marcello Mastroianni play three enormously different kinds of couples. Naturally, Nathaniel left the optional rule that we could select one shot from each segment; naturally, I’m exercising that option.
First up is “Adelina”, the brightest and best of the segments, showcasing De Sica’s almost entirely untapped gift for comedy. Adelina has run up a stupefying list of bills, and the police have come knocking; but she and her husband Carmine discover that Italian law provides for any pregnant woman, or woman who has given birth within the last six months, can’t be sent to prison. And thus do the couple forestall the inevitable for years, as an increasingly fatigued Carmine keeps knocking Adelina up, while she brings her ever-expanding brood to help her sell black market cigarettes and keep the family afloat.
It’s breezy, but there’s still a satiric bite, and it offers a surprisingly rich array of images to pick from: the way that Adelina is situated in the midst of a supporting community, through a series of repeated set-ups, ensures that much of the comedy and storytelling are achieved visually. That being said, I went someplace entirely differently. Herewith, my pick for Best Shot, in which Adelina demonstrates to the newly-arrived cops that she’s pregnant once again, and safe from their clutches:
What I love about it its bluntness. Loren’s face is just so utterly devoid of affect or even the slightest interest in her unwanted visitors. She knows, even if they don’t, that she’s too damn busy to deal with their nonsense – can you see that already-born kid standing right there? And look how cluttered that kitchen is! It’s a fussy, jam-packed mise en scène that wonderfully suggests why Adelina, in this moment, doesn’t even have the stamina to open her mouth and speak words to the cops, just to blandly indicate why they need to get the hell out and leave her be. In a funny short, it’s the moment that made me laugh the loudest, and that’s sometimes all you really need.
Next up: “Anna”. The shortest of the segments, and also the film’s obvious clinker (but then, what anthology film bats 1.000?), it’s a banal drama about a shallow rich woman and her increasingly disillusioned lover, who realises over the course of a drive out from Milan that she cares more about things than people. Particularly when he damages her precious Rolls-Royce in order to avoid hitting a child. The points made by the wan script – credited the three writers, the most of any segment in the film – are obvious and there’s limited visual interest; De Sica and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (who shot all three segments) are hemmed in by how much of the action takes place in the front seat of the car, and long passages of the film go by with only three or four different ideas for how to set up the camera.
Towards the end, though, intriguing images start to pile up, and among them we find this:
In the foreground: a furious Anna and a flustered Renzo trying to deal with the smoke pouring out of the broken Rolls. In the background: the boy whose non-death triggered this most severe tragedy in Anna’s life, silently watching the clownish flapping about of these two sophisticated, wealthy Milanites. Generally, “Anna” grows more successful as it buries its judgment of the title character in silent, weighty moments, instead of handing off dully horrified pronouncements to Mastroianni. And this is the first and best of a handful of shots which position an out-of-focus in the back behind a two-shot in the foreground, allowing the depth of the staging and the static silence of the background character to serve as an implicit commentary. These people are putting on a little show of human behavior, and their audience is at best unimpressed with their noisy self-regard.
The film ends with “Mara”, a return to genial comedy, though of a more grounded sort than was shown in “Adelina”. Mara is a prostitute, whose cranky old neighbors have taken in their grandson Umberto (Giovanni Ridolfi), a seminary student. As the sheltered young man sees her untroubled ownership of her life and her sexual drive, he of course falls in love with her, which forces her to rely on her most amorous regular client, Augusto, to help her shake the boy out of his puppy love and get back on the right track.
It’s the sweetest of the three stories, and the sexiest, and those mostly come in the same form: the smoldering hot Loren (who spends the film’s final moments doing a striptease) dealing as nicely as she can with the boys who fall head-over-heels for her without stopping to think what her opinion on the matter might be. In practice, this means multiple scenes of her and Mastroianni (who is at his clear best in this segment, out of the three) playing scenes that weirdly blur the sexual charge of a john visiting his beloved whore, and two adults in a comfortable long-term relationship jousting with each other. That’s when this happens:
Augusto wants to have sex; Mara, pissed off at her judgmental neighbor, just wants to fume and vent and do some cleaning till she calms down. He flirts, canoodles, talks dirty, and eventually gives up, as she passes him the dishes to dry. Of course, he’s still an immature horndog, and this moment will pass, but for for the moment, “Mara” speaks a wonderful truth about the way grown-up lovers work together. Sometimes you have rich, passionate, filthy sex, and sometimes the damn dishes need to be washed.
And if you were to accuse me of also picking this shot for the bright, joyful ’60s color scheme in the green-yellow cabinets and Loren’s pink apron, day-glo domesticity that makes this plain little moment hum with visual energy: dear reader, I would not deny that accusation.