Why does it take so long for certain extremely gifted filmmakers to achieve international attention and praise for their body of work? Italian director Antonio Pietrangeli might have been popular and well-known in his own country but not so much in the U.S. where he was almost forgotten until the last decade. Thanks to filmmaker Alexander Payne, a re-discovery of Pietrangeli’s work began in 2012 after Payne hosted a showing of Lo La Conoscevo Bene (English title: I Knew Her Well, 1965) at the Telluride Film Festival that year (The Criterion Collection would later release it on Blu-ray and DVD in 2016). It was also in 2012 that Raro Films released Pietrangeli’s La Visita (English title: The Visit, 1963) on DVD in America and followed it up with a 2014 DVD release of his Adua e Le Compagne aka Hungry for Love aka Love a la Carte (1960).
Retrospectives of Pietrangeli’s work at museums, film festivals and cinema archives soon followed with MoMA presenting 10 of his movies in 2015 (He only directed 11 feature films plus contributions to two anthology films, 1954’s Mid-Century Loves and 1966’s The Queens. He was more prolific as a screenwriter and also worked as an assistant director on films like Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione. It’s a shame Pietrangeli didn’t live long enough to see his work being re-discovered in the U.S. and abroad (he drowned at sea in 1968 at age 49) but renewed interest in his work doesn’t necessarily mean that most of his work is now readily available for viewing. One of his key achievements, La Parmigiana (English title: The Girl from Parma, 1963) is still missing in action but it is an impressive showcase for actress Catherine Spaak and a fine example of Pietrangeli’s unusually effective blend of comedy and drama featuring a female protagonist. In fact, most of his films view Italian society through the eyes of a sympathetic heroine or heroines.
The Girl from Parma opens with Dora (Spaak) arriving by train to Parma after fleeing her small town. Orphaned at an early age, she was raised by her uncle, a priest, but after having an affair with Giacomo (Vanni De Maigret), a young seminarian, she has to run away because of the scandal it causes. Amneris (Didi Perego), a childhood friend of her mother, offers her a place to stay but Scipio (Salvo Randone), Amneris’s husband, finds the arrangement unbearable because of his attraction to this young, ravishing beauty.
Dora’s initiation into Parma culture begins with Amneris taking on the unrequested role of matchmaker for her and accompanying her to cafes and clubs where Dora eventually attracts the attention of Michele (Lando Buzzanca), a local policeman who becomes a persistent and annoying suitor. His buffoonish pursuit of Dora makes a stark contrast against Dora’s previous relationship with Nino (Nino Manfredi), a two-bit hustler and get-rich-quick schemer who employs her to help him with his modeling/photography scams. Their relationship is not romantic and more of a business transaction but Dora develops a fondness for him that turns into something deeper when he is arrested and sent to jail.
The film veers back and forth between the past and the present as we see Dora learning the game when it comes to dealing with men and society’s double standards. She is no dummy and can be street smart and manipulative when necessary but the odds are stacked against her because there are so few options for women in Italy at that time. The country was in the midst of a postwar economic resurgence in the early 1960s but the main people who seemed to be profiting from it were businessmen and the upper echelon. The media was also stoking the fantasies of young people, especially women, with images, news stories and product advertisements that seemed to herald the arrival of a more liberated, less class-conscious society. Although Dora may think of herself as a modern woman, she is still living in a male-dominated culture and often rebels against those limitations without success.
Another theme that emerges in The Girl from Parma is the concept of displacement. The fact that economic hardships or persecution forces people to relocate to survive or improve their living situation was true of Italy at that time as many southern Italians were forced to move north to find work. Dora is just another example of someone who has to leave home for personal reasons but finds her new world is just as oppressive, if not more complicated, than the old one.
Some film historians have described Pietrangeli as a specialist in Commedia all’Italiana, which was a specific kind of comedy that became popular in the late fifties. Some of the more popular films in that genre were Dino Risi’s Poveri ma Belli (English title: Poor but Beautiful, 1956) and Mario Monicelli’s 1959 heist satire, I Soliti Ignoti (English title: Big Deal on Madonna Street) but those were primarily comedic in nature while Pietrangeli’s films can be both dramatic and satiric with an underlying layer of sadness that is almost bitter. That is certainly the case with The Girl from Parma, which shows Dora dealing with one disappointment after another until she becomes resigned to her fate. Unlike the seemingly free-spirited Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli) in Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well, who experiences extreme highs and lows during her brief life, Dora is much more of a realist and ultimately a survivor.
Catherine Spaak was 18 years old when she made The Girl from Parma and her performance is a revelation after appearing in a number of light comedies in which she usually played a flirtatious teenybopper pursued by older men like Christian Marquand in Sweet Deceptions (1960) and Ugo Tognazzi in Crazy Desire (1962). The daughter of renowned poet, playwright and screenwriter Charles Spaak (Grand Illusion, Two Women), Catherine was the “It Girl” of Italian cinema during the mid to late sixties,starting as a teenager in her first credited film role in Il Carro Armato dell’8 Settembre (1960) and eventually moving into more adult roles such as The Libertine (1969) and A Complicated Girl (1969). At the same time, Spaak also enjoyed a music career, writing and performing her own pop songs, some of which were featured in her movies. (It is a strange coincidence that Spaak died on April 17, eight days after this post was written; she was 77 years old.)
Some film critics dismissed Spaak as an attractive ingenue with minimal acting ability but she surprised many with her performance as Dora, where she is required to convey a wide range of emotions, often with minimum dialogue, in several key scenes. One standout scene occurs when she discovers she can’t afford her hotel/restaurant bill after being abandoned by Giacomo at a beach resort. The hotel manager proposes a way she can pay off her debt and her face changes from disbelief to a kind of cynical haughtiness as she agrees to his implied fee of sex by ordering everything on the menu, starting with all of the appetizers and moving on to lobster, steak and other entrees.
Spaak also displays a wicked sense of humor and a penchant for making frank comments that often shock the people in her presence, character traits which were not typical of her other teenage roles. There is a particularly delightful sequence at a dance hall where everyone is doing the twist and Dora observes a short male dancer whose face is fixated on the breasts of his tall female partner, commenting “He looks like he is breast feeding.” Her interactions with Michele are equally unexpected such as a scene where she points out Giacomo in the street and says, “He’s the one who popped my cherry.” She is no less direct in addressing Giacomo’s courtship of her with remarks like, “Don’t hold me like that. It looks like you’ve arrested me.”
The supporting cast of The Girl from Parma is first rate with Nino Manfredi a standout as the desperate, ne’er-do-well Nino, a role somewhat similar to his sleazy press agent in Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well. Didi Perego as Amneris provides some of the more satiric moments regarding women in Italian society in scenes that accent her busybody behavior and fondness for mean-spirited gossip. Sicilian character actor Salvo Randone, who has a great, hangdog face, is almost sympathetic as Amneris’s miserable husband who would rather be left alone to play his trumpet or perform with his small dance band. The scene where he creeps into Dora’s bedroom to gaze at her bare leg before rushing off to the bathroom to thwart his lust with splashes of cold water is hard to forget.
The one character who comes close to being a broad caricature is Lando Buzzanca, who gave brilliant comic performances in Divorce, Italian Style (1961) and Seduced and Abandoned (1964). Pietrangeli uses Buzzanca’s hapless policeman as the brunt of several verbal and physical jokes in the course of the film but they do serve to lighten the mood as The Girl from Parma moves toward a less than optimistic ending. A perfect example of this is when Michele waits in the street outside Dora’s bedroom waiting for a glimpse of her. Amneris sees this, stating, “He looks like a streetlight pole. Even dogs will start pissing on him soon!”
The Girl from Parma was partially filmed on location giving the movie an almost documentary feel of day-to-day life on the streets of Parma (The cinematographer is Armando Nannuzzi, who lensed several of Pietrangeli’s film as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Porcile aka Pigsty (1969) and the 1970 epic Waterloo). The perky, upbeat music score by Piero Piccioni, which often provides an ironic commentary to what is actually happening on screen, includes some popular songs from the era such as “Catherina” by Perry Como, “Quando, Quando, Quando” by Tony Renis and “Hammo Detta” by Nora Orlandi.
As stated earlier, you can find at least three of Antonio Pietrangeli’s more famous films on Blu-ray and DVD but The Girl from Parma is not available on any authorized format in the U.S. You might be able to find an Italian DVD import of it from online sellers and European Trash Cinema has a decent DVD-R disc available but this is a movie that deserves the showcase treatment in the style of The Criterion Collection or Arrow Films.
Other links of interest: