It is, perhaps, rather ironic that out of all the films Damiano Damiani has directed—in a career spanning the late-'40s to the present day —the one likely to be most familiar to readers of this web site is the dismal sequel "Amityville: The Possession" (1982). In fact, Damiani's work in his native Italy springs from the influence of the neo realist (neorealismo) school, and betrays his early training as a documentary filmmaker. His early films, including the bloody "A Bullet for the General", found ways to take genre staples and infuse them with social and political themes and a sense of the murky moral complexities of life, without sacrificing their entertainment value for cheap political point scoring. "The Most Beautiful Wife" (his tenth film) fits very much in with this pattern; it is based on the true story of Franca Viola, a Sicilian teenager who defied the backwards social conventions of rural Sicily in 1965, to not only refuse to marry her Mafioso rapist (a man called Filippo Melodia), but to also demand that he face police charges for the crime. In the process, Viola paved the way for the modification of Italian law and became an Italian feminist cause célèbre into the bargain.
Damiani doesn't tackle the subject matter in a predictable tub thumping style though; the film starts with a finely crafted, Scorsese-like delineation of a Sicilian mafia family, headed by the genteel Don Antonio (Amerigo Tot) and it is some time into the narrative before Viola's character (here, renamed Francesca) even appears—and only gradually does she take the centre stage. It's a clever move that takes the film completely out of the province of "single issue" dramas, allowing the viewer to understand and sympathise with the social culture of Sicily and the entwined relationships of the various strands that make it up, before coming to see its horrific, backward-thinking side, and to appreciate the full extent of the monumental struggle of the young protagonist.
The Sicilian police force are preparing to arrest Don Antonio when his handsome young nephew Vito Juvara (Alessio Orango of "Lisa and the Devil" and "The Killer must Kill Again") comes to visit: but Don Antonio's acceptance of the situation is all part of a clever plot, whereby the wily Mafia head has arranged his own witness for the prosecution who is to lie on oath in return for a substantial payoff, forcing the case to be thrown out and leaving the Police unable to prosecute Antonio again for the same crime.
While Don Antonio is temporarily imprisoned, Vito is to take over business for the family. It doesn't take long for the beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter of some struggling, poor local peasants to come to the attention of his roving eye — and Francesca is equally enamoured of him; but there is the small matter of her out-of-town suitor, a cousin who comes to visit every month hoping to one day win her hand. Vito "makes him an offer he can't refuse" (so to speak) and quickly removes his only competition. Francesca is secretly impressed by Vito's attentions; but after he is informed that the police have found another witness to testify against Don Antonio, Vito has to arrange an impromptu execution which, unfortunately for him, occurs right in front of Francesca. The young girl is appalled by Vito's "profession" and turns down his offer of marriage on the spot!
Vito is not the kind of man to take no for an answer though; and when he is humiliated during business with a rival Mafia family, who are quick to point out that he can't even hang on to the daughter of a poor peasant family, he gets his girl by the highly unromantic method of arranging some of his goons to kidnap her, after which he rapes her. Francesca decides to go to the police, but this angers both the poor population (who's culture forbids "informing") and her own family, who risk losing their few possessions at the hands of Vito and his men unless Francesca drops her charges and agrees to marry the man who took her virginity by force. Francesca's fiery sense of justice refuses to be daunted though, and the community as a whole eventually starts to turn against her.
Damiani shifts the events forward a few years to 1968 -- just after the calamitous earthquake that rocked Sicily at that time, and left the region economically devastated with hundreds killed and many poor people made homeless. The film marks the debut of cinematographer Franco di Giacomo ("Four Flies on Grey Velvet") in the role of director of photography and he brings a gritty realism to the portrayal of the semi-rural community and the surrounding hilly countryside. Damiani films the rubbish-strewn buildings and the devastation wrought by the earthquake with his habitual documentary realism; but the ruinous state of the surroundings in which the action plays out serves as an effective visual metaphor for the breakdown in social cohesion and the upheaval Francesca's stand against the community and her own family engenders.
At the centre of this maelstrom of course, is the actor making her debut in the lead role of Francesca: Ornella Muti. Astonishingly, she was only fourteen at the time of taking this heavyweight role. This helps explain Damiani's complete avoidance of the central rape scene — a rare piece of discretion for '70s Italian cinema! It is a powerhouse performance from Muti though, whose pure, green-eyed beauty belies the passion of her character, who goes so far as to burn down her own family's storehouse in order to try and shock them into supporting her battle against Vito! The screenplay is magnificent in depicting Francesca's isolation and Muti beautifully conveys her character's superhuman resolution and almost crazed passion for justice.
As ever in Damiani's movies, a note of ambiguity and emotional complexity is still struck though: for despite the great wrong perpetrated against its lead character, she does, evidently, still like Vito; and even after being tempted to collude with some of his mafia rivals in order to lure him into a trap, she does eventually warns him, hoping he will pay her father for his killing the goat her family rely on for their living. Alessio Orango plays the charismatic Vito Juvara with sharp-featured intensity; in some ways he is as much a victim as Franchesca - a victim of Italy's macho culture and of a wounded pride which leads him to reject Franchesca's overtures of reconciliation. As the film progresses, we see how dependent the poor are on the mafia's help, and hamstrung by their habitual hostility to the police; even her younger brother — at first so outraged by his sister's violation — turns against her when he learns she is co-operating with the police in order to put Vito away; and her father's dependence upon the mafia's goodwill leads him gradually into cowardice. We also witness the old-fashioned moral attitudes of some of the older members of the community who see marriage as being preferable to being an unmarried rape victim; while a Catholic priest is more worried about whether she enjoyed carnal feeling during the rape rather than righting the wrong that has been done against her.
No Shame once again demonstrate why they have rapidly risen to the top of the pile in their handling of this film's DVD presentation. The 2.35:1 widescreen print looks immaculate and the viewer has the choice of both the original Italian soundtrack (with English subtitles) or the English dub track. On top of this, we get not just a featurette, but a full forty-five minute documentary on the making of the film which sees director Damiano Damiani, assistant director Mino Grarda, editor Antono Siciliano, lead actor Alessio Orano and director of photography Franco di Giacomo extensively interviewed. In truth, the running time of this documentary could have been pared down by at least ten minutes since a number of anecdotes are repeated several times by various participants (sometimes one after the other). We hear how bad tempered and lugubrious Damiani whipped Ornella's legs with a riding crop to get her to cry with enough emotion (those crazy Italians!) and Giacomo and Orango relate how much of the film had to be shot in such a way as to disguise the fact that Alessio Orano had a black eye from a brawl at a night club. Giacomo also tells how, for much of the shooting of the film, the weather was terrible — nothing like the usual image of Sicily. However, this gave the film it's unique look. particularly evident during the barn burning scene which takes place in bluish twilight, enveloped in mist. If this isn't enough, the DVD also comes with a booklet featuring a review and biographies of director and lead stars wonderfully written by Richard Harland Smith.
"The Beautiful Wife" may disappoint the Euro-cult fan used to the excesses of sex and violence usually to be found in Italian cinema of this era; but with an extremely compelling score by Ennio Morricone and some fantastic work by Franco di Giarcomo (the barn burning sequence is particularly well handled) this is a worthwhile addition to any fans DVD collection.