"La Bella Di Lodi" / "The Girl From Lodi", Dir: Mario Missiroli, 1963
Having "discovered" Stefania Sandrelli earlier in my lockdown viewing in Antonio Pietrangeli's "I Knew Her Well", (1965) I was curious to seek out other films that she appeared in, and so far Amazon Prime is the only on-demand service that features several films, mainly spanning the late 70's and through into the 80's, with Criterion Channel offering Pietrangeli's film and Pietro Germi's "Divorce Italian Style" (1961), both acknowledged classics of the Commedia Al'Italiana genre, alongside some fascinating extras not found elsewhere outside of DVD/BluRay releases.
Chronologically speaking, "La Bella Di Lodi" is sandwiched between the two in terms of release date though, interestingly, the opening sequences set on a beach echo that of the later "I Knew her Well" which prompted me to speculate on which came first.
I would describe the film as exhibiting nods to the burgeoning Italian New Wave movement in film of the 60's in terms of a social/neorealist slant but it's essentially very much rooted in Commedia Al'Italiana - just not in the laugh out loud way of "Divorce Italian Style" so much as being social satire.
This time Sandrelli is cast as "Roberta", a young go-getter from a wealthy family with interests in agriculture and real estate, entrusted by her grandmother, the matriarch of the family, to help run the estate since her parents and brother lack the necessary competence.
Independant and free to pursue casual dalliances with whomever she pleases, she drives an expensive Alfa Romeo "Giulietta" equipped with an in-car record player, or "Mangiadischi", that instantly identifies her with the upwardly mobile elite of post war Italy and is a stark change of direction from the exploited young women she depicted in "I Knew Her Well" and "Divorce Italian Style", in a role that offers the opportunity to show her range as an actress.
As mentioned, like "I Knew Her Well", the film opens on a sunny beach where Roberta is sunbathing alone and closes in on a young man who is rifling through her purse. Alarmed, she admonishes the young man before he is able to steal the contents of her purse but also notices that he is ruggedly handsome, though somewhat uncouth, which she finds attractive.
The young man, Franco (Ángel Aranda), aware that there is a more than a glimmer of interest in him, uses this opportunity to get himself off the hook, though she pretends to be disinterested, and makes an attempt at suggesting they meet up later since he is also a racing driver at a local track, a fact which Roberta shrugs off disinterestedly since she thinks he is simply trying to impress her and could be lying.
Later, Roberta and a group of friends are watching Franco race around a track which turns out to be for motorized go-karts, something that her rich friends find tiresome.
At this point it's worth mentioning that stylistically the film makes many similar "jumps" in the narrative where the viewer is left to fill in the gaps, and the end result is something that feels very realistic, capitalising on an understanding of how affairs develop outside of the often manufactured and linear scenarios of Hollywood films - for example, as Roberta and Franco embark on an affair, there are no declarations of love and the attraction between the two is largely physical.
Initially Roberta is wary of Franco, especially after he pesters her to make love for the first time when they meet soon after the go-kart race, and she finally gives in to his insistent and petulant behavior. She drops Franco at the train station since he lives in another town and he promises to buy her a puppy, a suggestion that she feels slightly insulted by.
Satisfied that Franco is just another casual affair with someone who happened to catch her eye and nothing more, she is surprised to find a letter addressed to her from Franco, back at the family chateau announcing that he is arriving at Lodi with the intention of meeting her.
Suspecting that the rough Franco is just a gold-digger, she arranges for the local police to arrest him for petty theft after reluctantly agreeing to meet him at the station, after he gives her the puppy. Franco is dragged off protesting while Roberta looks on, holding the puppy.
We get a glimpse of Roberta's social life and milieu when her family invite their wide circle of friends - mostly industrialists with agricultural concerns - to their chateau for a wild party where they drink and eat the local produce of their farms, which soon degenerates into debauchery.
Roberta agrees to rendezvous with a wealthy male friend after the party but feels pangs of guilt for setting up Franco and after a visit to the town she imagines seeing him in a cafe but it turns out to be someone else.
At this point we realize she has feelings for him though it is still little more than a physical attraction and she knows that he simply wouldn't fit with her way of life or social class.
She visits the local courts to find out if Franco is still imprisoned for petty theft and it turns out that his 6 year sentence had been commuted and he has returned home and she requests the address from the court official which helps her track down Franco who by now is working at a car dealership and eager to stay on the straight and narrow.
Their reunion is hardly the stuff of a romantic novel as the furious Franco slaps her about and she is rescued by a couple of friends who drive her home, leaving her car at the garage for someone to drive back - that "someone" turns out to be Franco.
From this point on we get glimpses of their developing affair in the telescoped fashion described above and it becomes clear that for Franco to be a part of her life she must mold him into becoming something worthy of her family and she proceeds to use her connections and wealth to set Franco up with a garage and car dealership.
Used to calling the shots in every area of her life, Roberta finds a match in the rough, uneducated Franco, who is unimpressed by her social standing and at one point there is a sense that he is simply using her. However, Roberta is not one to take things lying down and after her grandmother suggests she marry Franco since no one else in the family is competent enough to keep the estate going when she passes on, she agrees and the film concludes with Roberta and Franco moving their formerly torrid physical relationship to the next stage.
Quite why this film has such a slim write-up on Wikipedia is a mystery, though to be fair it's not the most well-known of the genre and for me its' main draw is Stefania Sandrelli, who delivers her lines machine-gun fashion appropriate to the stock-market reading business woman character of Roberta that teeters on the edge of caricature - it's quite a bravura performance in fact where she combines an ice cold air of snootyness with moments of subtlety, for example in the scene where Franco is arrested and where only her eyes betray her sudden feelings of guilt.
Stefania Sandrelli was well on her way to being a major star of Italian cinema of the 60's and into the 80's with occasional forays into international films with some big Hollywood stars but until I discovered her films I was completely unaware of her as an actress and it's clear that her films demonstrate her range across genres, from the Commedia Al'Italiana to more serious themes of films like Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist" and "1900", before her career charted a downward curve into several romantic films with a prominent element of nudity, though without ever being exploitative, possibly as a result of support from her family and brother, who had managed her acting career from the outset.