Fermented grape juice is a special kind of elixir, even Shakespeare was a fan of crushing a cup and some, one could argue, might go to extreme lengths for a glass of vino, maybe even a bottle… or million. Stanley Kramer’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria opens with Fabio (Giancarlo Giannini) rushing home to deliver good news, il Duce has been ousted from the NFP. Sadly, the young man’s enthusiasm isn’t met in quite the way he was hoping as most of Santa Vittoria does not understand what the end of Fascism means for them but Mussolini has gone and the Germans are on their way, led by Captain von Prum (Hardy Krüger) and will take whatever they like.
The film is set in a generic wine-producing region of Italy (in approximately 1943 although made some 25 years later) where the men drink and their wives are seen but generally not heard, a real “Boys Club”. Bombolini (Anthony Quinn) is one man whose wife, Rosa (Anna Magnani) insists on being heard. She runs the inn with her husband and is at the end of her rope; she loved him once but cannot remember exactly when. He’s well liked amongst the other hard-drinkers and they encourage him to put “a fist in her mouth” mainly because “it’s a sad house when the cock is silent and the hen does all the crowing.” Ah, domestic violence is hilarious, isn’t it? Especially when a film normalises women hitting men but the threat against women is somehow more shocking. To be fair, in this film, neither gender comes off particularly well. Fragile masculinity is personified in Quinn’s Bombolini, he is – not to put too finer point on it – an idiot and the townspeople make him Mayor *because* he’s a fool which bodes well. Predictably, the title and gold medallion leads the clown to think he’s arrived, and Rosa will suddenly become obedient. Almost immediately, we realise this is not the case but he does cease drinking and successfully hides the bulk of the fruits of their labour/vinification.
There are a couple of subplots which largely deal with the love lives of three female characters: Signora Rosa, Caterina (Virna Lisa) – who returns to the village after the death of her Fascist husband but then falls in love with injured soldier Tufa (Sergio Franchi) who she nurses back to health, and who also happens to be a Fascist. However, as he’s a peasant from Santa Vittoria she’s willing to turn a blind-eye. Rounding off the trio is Rosa and Italo’s daughter, Angela (Patrizia Valturri). She’s in love with Fabio but is only interested in sex, not marriage.
One of the major niggles with The Secret of Santa Vittoria is it hasn’t aged well. Its politics are muddled and archaic, it never leads with a message or knows exactly what it wants to say, it does pick up pace – how the townspeople shift the million bottles of wine is quite something albeit disbelief suspending – and the jaunty and affable score is enjoyable but none of it is affecting, surprising or particularly spontaneous. It functions as a huge Hollywood production, structured to within an inch of its life. It isn’t a musical but would have worked very well as one.
The saving grace is Anna Magnani, in her last English-speaking role. Her powerful demeanour and beautiful imperious face never falters; it’s worth watching all the way through just to see that world-class grimace break into a grin. She was a stunning actress and here makes the most of the material given – by no means a stretch – she’s wonderful as the tough and feisty Rosa, the only downside is she’s not given nearly enough screen-time.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a pleasant, mostly entertaining fare; perfect Sunday afternoon viewing, with, of course, a quaffable glass of red.