THE BATTLE OF THE VILLA FIORITA is a forgotten relic of 1965, one of the last sighs of a long-running industry staple, what used to be called ‘women’s pictures’, usually involving circumstance-embroiled heroines in nice clothes suffering in swank surroundings, with second-lead male stars in attendance to stoke the tearducts. Most (straight) guys avoided these soapers, where the determined likes of Lana Turner, Joan Crawford or Susan Hayward would cross the line of propriety yet simultaneously hold the line for nobility, while string-heavy music scores from Max Steiner or Franz Waxman caressed their choices. The smug joke from high-brows reviewing these were that they were Kleenex-fodder fit only for depressed housewives. ‘Glossy melodrama’ must have been trotted out a thousand times describing these popular items.
This artifact surprised me with some effective nostalgia-nudging. Its beautiful color cinematography and sincere performances provide cover for unlikely script contrivances, over-length (the 110 minutes would have worked better around 90) and its contextual aura of gloom. It was the last movie written & directed by the prolific Delmer Daves, who switched over from a string of seven good westerns during 1954-59 to six years of seven sudsers (including four valiant attempts to do something with Troy Donahue).
Luckily, here his leading lady is Maureen O’Hara, 45 and a knockout) and the adulterer-in-chief is Rossano Brazzi (described by one critic as “Italy’s biggest tourist attraction”), 49 and suave as ever. Their committed work does a lot to make the travails bearable. Being drenched in locations at Lake Garda in northern Italy doesn’t hurt.
The plot has O’Hara skipping out on dullard hubby Richard Todd to luxuriate by mountain-framed Lago di Garda with her concert pianist lover Brazzi. Her hurt and confused children (Martin Stephens and Elizabeth Dear) follow on their own to gum things up, then Brazzi’s daughter piles on as well. She’s played by Olivia Hussey, 14, in her debut, three years before Romeo And Juliet.
The kids do well enough (Stephens had been one of the ultra-weird youngsters in Village Of The Damned ), though their scheming tries patience some. Brazzi gets room to display passion, and since he’d been seducing frustrated American women for years (in Three Coins In The Fountain, Summertime and South Pacific ) that’s expected.
I think it’s O’Hara’s best latter-career role, hardly as much fun as the much more popular The Parent Trap, Mr.Hobbs Takes A Vacation or McClintock, but with more scene-to-scene chances to display a nuanced range of actual, authentic informed-by-life adult emotion. She doesn’t get spanked here.
She had a bone to pick with ace cameraman Oswald Morris, who she said shot her unfavorably after she cheered for Italy during a Italy-UK soccer match. Brit crews could be notoriously sulky and hard-assed (ask David Lean) so who knows?–to me it seemed like they both handled their respective duty just fine. She looks great. The pretty music score by Mischa Spoliansky doesn’t over do it.
Supporting bits are peppered with pros Phyllis Calvert, Maxine Audley (‘Lady Anthea’), Ursula Jeans, Richard Wattis and Finlay Currie.
Hissy critics— paging Judith and Paulene— dumped on it (what a surprise), and it died weeping at 130th place for the year. Box-office was a pitiful $1,500,000, as audiences were firmly siding with groovier product. Crowds went for Help! and ‘Pussy Galore’ instead, as electric guitars and laser beams left the violins behind. After fifty years of noise, this old-school decorum is rather refreshing.