BR: Secret of Santa Vittoria, The (1969)

January 21, 2015 | By


SecretOfSantaVittoria_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  August 12, 2014

Genre:  Drama / Comedy

Synopsis: A small Italian town rallies behind their buffoon mayor and hide 1.3 million bottles of fine local wine from an incoming Nazi division during the final days of WWII.

Special Features:  Isolated stereo & mono music track / Original Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




Based on the international best-selling novel by Robert Crichton (The Great ImpostorThe Camerons) and adapted by the venerable Ben Maddow (The Asphalt JungleThe Mephisto Waltz) and William Rose (GenevieveThe Flim-Flam Man), The Secret of Santa Vittoria is often referred by affectionate fans as ‘that film about hiding wine from the Nazis’ during WWII, often without a full memory of the actual film title.

It’s a crazy plot hook that also places the film in a small, small sub-genre of comedic films involving wine – the others including Sideways (2004), Year of the Comet (1992) – but Vittoria is a genuine period piece, set in an idyllic mountaintop village populated by boisterous, colourful rustic Italian characters, and that’s part of the film’s conundrum: had the film been a full Italian production, the caricatures of ‘crazy lovable Italians’ may have been less severe, but add a bloated length to this American production, and it’s an often uneven attempt to create an absurdist film in which locals outwit evil Nazi occupiers.

Stanley Kramer’s penchant for provocative dramas tackling contemporary social issues dominated much of his career – standouts include the anti-nuclear war drama On the Beach (1959), the Scopes monkey trial in Inherit the Wind (1960), and Nazi war crimes in what’s perhaps his masterwork, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) – but in need of something lighter, Kramer also undertook the super-extravaganza, mega-supremo, l’ultimo-totales comedy to top all comedies, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) which ran about 3 hours long.

Kramer isn’t a comedy director, and without a film packed with iconic, self-sustaining, and highly competitive vaudeville geniuses as was the case with Mad, he had to rely on skilled character actors, a rock solid script, and his own intuition on when pacing needs a little tightening. Vittoria isn’t lethargic or dull, but its first third is more or less vignettes of bucolic townsfolk than character development, but once the story kicks in – the Nazis are coming to take all the wine! – the film finds its groove, and even secondary characters achieve some resonance in spite of the chief battle of wits between Anthony Quinn and Hardy Kruger.

Quinn’s characterization of the town buffoon could also be seen as a reprise of Zorba the Greek (1964) – grandiose, merry, and a lover of food, wine, and women – but Bombolini is the town idiot, a drunkard, and a goofball chosen by the outgoing Fascists Mayor & Co. to succeed them,  transform the office into a mockery, and thereby return town sympathy back to the Fascists in spite of Mussolini having been arrested by the Nazis.

Bombolini proves to be a clown with some sly skills (better applied when sober) and a foil for Nazi Capt. Von Prum (Kruger), who repeatedly thinks he’s pegged Bombolini’s scheme and discovered the location of the town’s secret wine stock, but he never gets full satisfaction.

As a solo character, Bombolini can’t sustain the film, hence the recurring appearances and involvement of his loud and ferocious wife Rosa (Anna Magnani), the puppy love affair between daughter Angela (Patrizia Valturri) and young idealist Fabio (a ridiculously young Giancarlo Giannini), and the mountain of attraction between ex-ant-Fascist fighter Tufa (opera singer Sergio Franchi in a rare dramatic film role) and Caterina (stunning Virna Lisi), widow and heir to the town’s biggest family fortune.

Leopoldo Triest (The White ShiekBay of Blood) plays his role of town council whip very broad, if not cartoon-like, whereas Eduardo Ciannelli (Mackenna’s Gold) has a small role as a grumpy town council elder, and there are small background touches which enhance the ridiculousness of Bombolini’s tenure – especially a painting in council chambers which is no better, no less undignified than Mussolini’s portrait which formerly graced the office: the painting of new mayor Bombolini is rendered not in a neo-Fascist style, but like a  cartoon caricature from Gerald Potter’s animated Animal Farm!

Kramer’s instincts in milking as much local colour from the fabulous mountain village, the surreal quality of an immense modern water tower jutting up from ancient buildings (‘Mussolini is always right!’), exploiting the lovely sloping hills of the vineyard, and staging one exceptional montage in which the villagers band together as four human conveyor belts to transport 1.3 million bottles of wine into a clever hiding place are brilliant, but it also helps having Giuseppe Rotunno (The LeopardCandyAmarcord) as cinematographer, and Ernest Gold as composer, the latter underscoring the magnificent visages of local Italians young and especially old as they move those precious bottles into a secrete nook.

Less effective is an epic marital fight where Rosa flings as many household implements at Bombolini’s head in an early fracas that sends him packing, but it’s perhaps the lone sequence where Kramer felt he just had to stage something a little epic along the lines of Mad.

Perhaps shocking to viewers is a dark tone that moves into the story when Caterina may well give in to von Prum’s sexual overtures, and the town’s rather grisly sacrifice to a pair of SS monsters that does ensure the wine’s safety, but reveals the town’s selfishness in safeguarding wine over human lives.

Bloated at 140 mins., Vittoria reportedly didn’t fare well upon its theatrical release, but it’s grown into a minor classic, perhaps from TV airings and a collective memory among fans of a curious story with absurd moments and a great cast.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a very lovely HD transfer and clean mono soundtrack. Gold’s stereo score, released on CD, is expanded in an isolated track between surviving mono cues from the isolated music stems, and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide a good overview of the novel’s popularity, and the film’s cult status –  something Kramer probably never expected to befall the film.

Quinn would play another Zorba riff in A Dream of Kings that same year, co-starring with Irene Papas. Magnani would appear in a few TV productions, passing away in 1973 after appearing in Frederico Fellini’s Roma (1972).

Franchi recalls the rather ‘stoic’ performance style of Bekim Fehmiu (The Adventurers), but he’s quite fine as a Communist rebel whom Bombolini consults, and it’s interesting how the singer stayed away from movies thereafter, finding the long waits between filming deadly dull over performing for a live audience.

Lisi, often cast as the hot chick in Hollywood fare (Assault on a Queen) actually lends her role some vital gravitas, and she manages to avoid traversing into bathos when her character has an internal struggle with emotions and bout of self-loathing.

Stanley Kramer would direct another nine films and teleplays before stepping away from directing in 1979, but Vittoria seems to suggest that his period of relevance was dependent on hot button social topics, and much of what followed in the seventies lacked the power and depth of the films he produced in the fifties (ChampionThe MenHigh Noon), and the human scope of the sixties, with even Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) feeling like an Important Statement for Change written expressly for middle class white audiences.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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