Monday, April 02, 2007

33. Pasquale Festa Campanile's Italian film "La ragazza e il generale" (The girl and the general) (1967): Can neo-realism mix with humor?

Virna Lisi gives an impressive neo-realistic performance
(The film, with dollops of satire, was made in lush technicolor, unlike the still above) 















This film will unfortunately not be remembered for Rod Steiger's performance. There are very few films that Steiger has not dominated--this is one of them. It will be remembered for the story and the direction, an interesting performance by Virna Lisi, and a somewhat creditable score by Ennio Morricone.

The director, Pasquale Festa Campanile, one should should recall has written scripts for and collaborated with great Italian directors such as Pasolini and Visconti. I do not know much more about Campanile but he must have been very good at writing screenplays for Visconti to work with him on The Leopard which is not an easy novel by any consideration. According to the opening credits in the English version of the film The Girl and the General, the director is one of the two authors of the original story.

This is not a war film. It is film that uses war as a backdrop to evaluate human values and what money means to the wretched and the poor. A bumbling soldier played convincingly by Umberto Orsini captures a General, not for heroics, not by design but by mere chance. The soldier is illiterate while the General is an understandably a well-read individual. Thus the Geneva convention and the city that Julius Caesar built is of little significance to the soldier. Yet, what is significant for him is that few Generals die on the war front and what the soldiers were given to drink before they clashed with the enemy at the front and met their death.

Neorealistic Italian cinema used the post-War scenario to examine study the human condition. Hunger is a great leveller: the General and soldier are the same when they are hungry. The soldier grudgingly shares his food with the General; the General steals a frog caught by the soldier. The writer-director clearly states where his sympathies lie. The soldier as an honest individual may appear stupid, but earns the respect of the viewer with his tenacity to come up with great ideas of making a General look like a cow to gain a few hours of sleep. His use of the word "sir" to address his prisoner over the length of the movie is a fine aspect of the character build-up by the writer.

The film moves into top gear with the arrival of the illiterate girl played by Virna Lisi. For her, too, taking the captured General back is simply for the the 1000 Lire split between two individuals that will allow for a good life. Her character is benign, honest and rustic. For a few potatoes she bares her breasts and the humiliation of the act is wonderfully portrayed without histrionics.

The sexual arousal of the soldier, the importance of sleep over the need for sex, the urinating General whose one arm is useless are vignettes of superb cinema. The simplicity of the film, as in most neo-realist Italian cinema, is disarming. The film even goes on to make a hero of a donkey, while conversation revolves around tasty donkey-meat.

The film reverses the traditional concept of heroism by presenting a woman being superior to a man (the General), a honest foot soldier superior to a General.

I am surprised the film has been glossed over by casual viewers. I will be looking out to catch up with Campanile's work. I am pleased to note that Virna Lisi has finally been accepted as a serious actress in the Nineties for her work in La Reigne Margot.

Ennio Morricone's score in this film is very close to the music he provided for the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. His score, like the performance of Steiger, is reigned in by the director to emphasize the role of the soldier and the girl. My only problem with the title of the movie is the lack of importance provided to the soldier, who is the central figure.

When I saw the film, the film brought back memories of de Sica's Bicycle Thief. Campanile's film, which provides equal importance to hens and donkeys as it does to human characters, is as real as they come and yet far removed from the values of Hollywood's screenplays, then and now.

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