Transfer: Very Good
Extras: Very Good
Label: Twilight Time
Genre: True Crime / Drama
Synopsis: Thinly veiled story based on Franca Viola, a teen bride who successfully had a local mafia figure prosecuted and sent to jail for kidnapping and rape.
Special Features: Isolated Mono Music Track / 2006 Director Intro (:58) / 2006 making-of documentary “Sicily, Ornella, the Mafia, and Beyond” (45:41) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
The initial impression from the poster art and compacted summaries is that The Most Beautiful Wife is a sleazy tale of a child bride or an illicit relationship between a teen and an older man, but Damiano Damiani’s film is a thinly veiled bio-drama of Franca Viola, a 15 year old teenager who spurned the advances and planned nuptials of small-time, 23 year old mafia leader Filippo Melodia; survived a gun-toting kidnapping and brutal gang rape over 8 days by his crew; and successfully had him charged and convicted in 1965.
Damiano describes her bravery as a way of “defying a barbaric culture,” or a specific local tradition in which a woman was obligated to marry her rapist to avoid being stigmatized and dishonored. Viola refused the convention of a “rehabilitated marriage,” and Melodia ultimately served 10 years in prison Viola’s determination to see Melodia charged and convicted proved a compelling tale for the cinema – crime, corruption, sex, violence, and action – but how to dramatize the story without reducing it to a cash-in, trashy sexploitation movie?
Some significant changes were made – perhaps for dramatic effects, or to maintain the veil of fiction – but the core story of a young girl wooed, attracted to, set to marry, and her quest to get justice and jail her rapist remained sound, and while Damiani instructed his editor to cut the film for tight pacing, it’s still a character piece involving an egotistical gangster (renamed Vito) who can’t break the will of a young woman (renamed Francesca); she may be a teen, but her independence and ferocity is far above her youth, and her refusal to give into a revolting convention drives him crazy.
In the hands of an exploitation filmmaker, the drama would’ve shifted to a sadist re-taunting his victim, multiple violent revenge kills, and a bloody finale, but Damiano chose to stay close to the basic case narrative, creating greater tension in scenes where Vito (striking, chilling, blue-eyed Alessio Orano) and Francesca (Ornella Muti in her film debut) have it out in arguments that come close to blows, but don’t; acts of reprisal are are inferred, but a key farm fire is redrawn with Francesca being the culprit, acting out to punish her parents for their indolence to lie in Vito’s favour, and stick with convention.
In the scripted drama, her father becomes a self-loathing, admitted coward who struggles with his daughter’s independence and greater courage. It’s part of an interesting approach that shows traditional paternalism and male sexism repeatedly confounded by the will of a young woman. The police are initially reluctant to help Francesca because they know tradition and convention trump moral rightness, but the lead detective (excellent Pierluigi Aprà) recognizes Francesca will not allow her rapist to parade through the city’s social and criminal world with pride, and he takes her challenge in building a case because he’s also an idealist in search of greater moral actions.
Damiano bookends the film with a powerful zoom that pulls away from the city’s central avenue and frames two walls of packed-in buildings and the ocean by the sloped horizon – perhaps symbolizing the staid nature of the city, the inhabitants, and the revolting tradition of rehabilitated marriages. The visual grit adds to the film’s docu-drama veneer, and the film represents a fine attempt to transcend the clichés of the crime film while still delivering modest doses of its conventions without diluting moral conflicts which shift and intensify during the narrative.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a transfer that was mastered from footage with sometimes different levels of technical issues. The opening reels are sharp yet grainy, and although the DNR doesn’t smoothen or waxen the footage, it seems to have been applied to temper the blistering grain. Colours are generally vibrant, and the sound mix is a coarse but balanced mono mix.
Fans of Ennio Morricone’s weird score can hear it isolated in mono on a separate track, and Damiano’s decision to shoot the film in a 2.35:1 ‘scope ratio like a western, depicting 1960s Sicily like a ‘wild west,’ helps to explain Morricone’s spaghetti western approach that includes some of the rustic instruments from his Sergio Leone epics. The music works, but the rubber twanging is too obvious and strays a bit close to parody of an otherwise dead serious drama.
TT’s also added two real surprises: a 45 min. making-of documentary with lively interviews and an intro by Damiani – material created by and originally appearing on the 2006 Region 0 DVD crafted by the long dead, dearly missed NoShame label which, during its brief lifespan, released exemplary special editions of Italian genre classics.
The doc provides needed context for the drama, and Damiani is generally credited as a skilled actor’s director with a slight tempter, a streak of cruelty, but a filmmaker who also gave many newcomers big breaks into the film business, including editor Antonio Siciliano (What Have You Done to Solange?) and cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Who Saw Her Die?). Co-star Orano also shares his thoughts on the film, getting a black eye, the Mafia and the city, and working with Damiano, and although there is anecdotal repetition between several of the interviewees, the doc’s still solidly engaging.
Muti’s entry into film began with Wife at the age of 14, and the doc covers the strategically dramatized rape which is never seen, but inferred through cutaways and side comments – a maneuver to tackle the filming of a tough drama with a teenage actress, but it also yielded a sequence that never degenerates into sexploitation (although in 1974 the actress would play the incestuous daughter Eugenia in Gianluigi Calderone’s truly sleazy Appassionata).
The film’s casting should also be highlights as many of the actors portraying Francesca’s parents and younger brother bear striking resemblances, adding to the story’s verisimilitude; Wife does tease the audience at times, but the film’s message of fighting for justice and the power of a singular strong figure is never diluted.
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review