The secret in Santa Vittoria is where a million bottles of wine are stashed, a mundane plot for a WWII comedy, right? Director Stanley Kramer, whose work expressed the hilarity and devotion to pride (see It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), crafts a comedy mired in darkness but able to discover the thin strip of light at the end of the tunnel. With hilarious performances by Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani, Twilight Time’s latest release will compel you to learn the secret.
Town drunk Bombolini (Quinn) is elected the mayor of Santa Vittoria as a patsy for when the Nazis eventually arrive. Fearing the loss of their valuable wine cache, the town bands together to hide it in a cave. When the Nazis finally make their appearance, headed up by Captain von Prum (Hardy Kruger), it becomes a battle of wills between the officer and Bombolini as to where the wine is hidden.
The entirety of The Secret of Santa Vittoria is based in the absurd. From the minute idealistic university student, Fabio (Giancarlo Giannini) arrives with news that Fascism is over and the town reacts apathetically, the audience realizes this isn’t a conventional war-set tale. Exuberantly played by Anthony Quinn, Bombolini, an Italian Don Quixote who fashions himself as a student of Machiavelli, transforms into a competent, if not still ridiculous, mayor. Quinn always played macho roles, but the characters themselves remained likeable due to their ignorance. The moments between Bombolini and his daughter, Angela (Patrizia Valturri) prove this. He tries to bond with her, but the minute she starts talking about sex and other “womanly” pursuits, he sends her to her mother.
The comedy, with a script by Ben Maddow, sizzles in its near anachronistic lines. This may be a WWII movie, but it’s got enough cursing and risque material for a film made in 1969. Angela, especially, is a modern young girl desperate for “information” about sex and love. Unfortunately, said information isn’t coming from her bitter mother and flustered father. It also doesn’t help matters that Angela keeps going around talking about how Fabio makes the “juices flow” within her (it’s a spit-take line for sure). Later on, when Fabio declares his love for Angela during a night-time seduction, the event is ruined through parental interference. The script pointedly attacks the double standard in relationships as Bombolini’s wife, Rosa (Magnani) tells him of what’s happened. Bombolini, not realizing the girl is his daughter, is originally proud of Fabio for his conquest…until he realizes his daughter is the paramour.
This is a relationship drama despite the Nazi storytelling. There’s two dueling young lovers: the aforementioned Fabio and Angela, but also the wealthy countess Caterina (Virna Lisi) and the poor Tufa (Sergio Franchi). The latter’s story lacks the comedy, but Lisi and Franchi are fantastic as the doomed couple whose hatred eventually turns to love. Of course, one can’t forget the relationship of our main character. Rosa is a sympathetic character unloved by the town, one of whom calls her a “loudmouthed bitch.” But Rosa’s bitterness comes from caring for a husband in a constant state of inebriation. When she talks love with Angela, she can’t hide the original love she feels for Bombolini, a romance rekindled through the hiding of the wine. I’ve adored Anna Magnani since The Rose Tattoo, and she’s just as fiery in this. The men tell Bombolini to give his wife a punch, but not even he’s willing to take that risk!
All this talk of relationships, what about the Nazis? The Nazis’ arrival turns this “town of jackasses” in a unified front of its own. The lengthy lines of people, passing bottles hand to hand, represents the chain of unity they find within each other. It’s this unity, this proactive nature, which eventually restores the love between Rosa and Bombolini. But, when you get right down to it, fighting over wine becomes a bit ridiculous. The Nazis can take away our freedom, but they’ll never take away our vino! Kramer and crew are aware of this, and Bombolini himself says the wine isn’t great but it’s the one thing they pride themselves on. Kruger’s von Prum is also prideful. No matter what his officers say about their being no wine, he refuses to give in. When von Prum finally leaves, Kruger holding defeat in his eyes, he still desperately wants to know where the wine is hidden.
For a movie with a premise as uneventful as wine hiding, the secret in The Secret of Santa Vittoria is how compelling wine hiding is made. A small town’s one resource becomes the beacon for standing up against oppression…but with humor. Quinn, Magnani, and Kruger are all empathetic – yes, even the Nazi – and genuine. Twilight Time’s latest release is a diamond in the rough.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.