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  • Ravi Swami

"La Visita" / "The Visit", Dir: Antonio Pietrangeli, 1963

Criterion Channel currently has only two films by Antonio Pietrangeli but they are considered to be his best, most representative, films where he had matured as a film-maker of great promise before his career was tragically cut short - I reviewed "I Knew Her Well" a few posts back and without any prior knowledge of his films, and as I've stated before, it's a real find.

"La Visita" stars Sandra Milo as "Pina" - by this point a regular in Pietrangelo's films - with the French actor François Périer as "Adolfo Di Palma" as, respectively, a single financially independent career woman living in a Northern Italian agricultural market town, and a bookseller from Rome.

Approaching her late 30's and fearful that she faces a life alone, Pina, still attractive, places an advertisement in the personal columns of a national newspaper advertising for suitable husband material. This proves to be successful and when the film opens we see her waiting in anticipation at the train station for someone who has answered her advert to arrive.

As the train comes to a halt we see Pina, shot from behind, walking along the platform anxiously scanning the carriages for Adolfo, with whom she has been exchanging letters, as she runs the gauntlet of wolf-whistles and comments about her voluptuous figure from various male passengers in a sequence reminiscent of a similar scene in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" featuring Marilyn Monroe.

This proves to be fruitless, or so it seems, until Pietrangeli sets up a dramatic shot of Pina looking back along the now almost deserted platform to see the distant figure of a man - Adolfo - and for a moment we share her relief.

Pietrangeli establishes the comic tone with a brief scene in the station waiting room as Pina talks to herself in front of a large mirror rehearsing her introduction to Adolfo only to be interrupted by a pair of nuns who break into a fit of giggles when they see her.

Pina and Adolfo's first meeting is awkward with both seeming shy and they seem ill-matched, though Pina is willing to look beyond Adolfo's glasses and gimlet-eyes that study her good looks and voluptuous figure.

Pina offers Adolfo a ride to her home in her car, stopping briefly on the way to collect something, and it is at this point that Adolfo encounters "Cucaracha" ("Cockroach", after the Latin American dance style), the town half-wit, - although it is later implied that he is actually less stupid than he appears - who makes threatening gestures toward Adolfo as he sits in the car.

Rattled, Adolfo ask Pina who he is and she replies that everyone in the town knows Cucaracha and that he is harmless.

They eventually arrive at Pina's villa, inherited from her late parents along with orchards, and which she shares with a talking parrot, a dog and a tortoise and which sets the scene for much of the comedy as Adolfo gradually tries to insinuate himself into Pina's life and to which she offers little resistance

Being familiar with Pietrangeli's work and the very sympathetic, feminist portrayal of women in his films, Pina comes across as the vulnerable party and Adolfo is gradually revealed to be a boorish metropolitan Roman who hates her pets and chases after other women. For example, when he sees the 16 year old "Chiaretta" (Angela Minervini), the granddaughter of Pina's home help, and discovers that her mother is a prostitute, he begins to take an unhealthy interest in her and Chiaretta reciprocates, though she is really toying with him.

As they take a walk outside Adolfo spots Pina's two seater swing and jokingly says that if he had the means he would employ an African to swing it for him, to which Pina responds by asking him if he is a racist, which he denies. Adolfo counters by asking Pina if she would be concerned if her daughter married a black man to which Pina replies, no, providing he is a good man, a scene Pietrangeli uses to make a point about narrow-minded cosmopolitan attitudes.

Depending upon your point of view, Pina is a cunning vixen out to ensnare a man and Adolfo is her feckless victim, something borne out to some extent in the stylish Polish film poster above, or the opposite and Adolfo is the predator who exudes charm and innocence at the outset and Pina is an inexperienced and gauche woman.

After watching the film alone and then with my family, I found that that point of view depended very much on the gender of the viewer and as the story progresses we discover via a flashback device of the screen becoming cloudy as if steaming up that both Pina and Adolfo have a past.

Throughout the period of a 24 hour weekend visit, Pina is endlessly patient and accepting of Adolfo, even as his behaviour worsens when he gets drunk on the wine she makes herself from her vineyards and then makes a clumsy attempt at propositioning her. Meanwhile Cucaracha follows their every move from a hidden vantage point and throws stones at Adolfo.

The flashbacks reveal that Pina had taken a lover, a lorry driver who happens to be married with children, and that he has urged her to settle down, something that she finds endearing in the knowledge that their affair is largely physical with no romantic strings attached.

As for Adolfo, we see him collecting laundry back in Rome where he makes advances toward the attractive "Nella" (Didi Perego) whose only flaw is a hairlip that Adolfo can't bring himself to kiss and is repelled by.

As the weekend progresses Adolfo, satisfied that he has found a good catch with the independantly wealthy Pina, becomes increasingly inebriated and erratic and reaches a peak when he is insulted by locals after they challenge him to a game that ends with him being thrown into a wooden fence by Cucaracha, before Cucaracha pick him up bodily and tries to dump him in the nearby river.

When Pina eventually manages to drag Adolfo away and back to her home, Adolfo stumbles into her bedroom only to find the lorry driver fast asleep on her bed and this forces Pina to come clean about her past.

However, male solidarity comes to the fore and the still drunk Adolfo tries to make peace with the lorry driver, who by now wants to make his escape, having embarrassed Pina.

Adolfo follows the lorry driver into the night as he rendezvous' with a lorry to take him on to his next destination while Adolfo, still drunk, tries to be excessively friendly. This ends with Pina trying to drag him back to the house before he falls flat on his face.

A scene where she nurses the drunk Adolfo in bed becomes the opportunity for her to say what she actually thinks about him and this honesty prompts Adolfo to admit that he is less than perfect himself and we are left to assume that the two spend the night together.

The next morning we see Pina and Adolfo preparing to leave for the train station where they first met as he returns to Rome and this is followed by a sequence set to a melancholic score as Pina drives Adolfo through the empty morning streets of the market town, their conversation now perfunctory and detached.

The film's closing sequences feature a narration by Pina and Adolfo as they read their letters to each other revealing that neither is particularly interested in pursuing a relationship and the film ends with a shot of Pina, alone again, driving home to her villa.

"Commedia All'Italiana" could be used to describe the film in it's broadest sense since Pietrangeli's films in particular often featured social statements with the comedy emerging from situations that seem very real - Pina has a tape recorder that she uses to teach her parrot sentences and while she is out Adolfo accidentally records over it as he curses the parrot.

In a flashback, we see Pina at work supervising some labourers at the agricultural concern where she works making crude sexual jokes in her presence and playing a prank on her that Pietrangeli uses to highlight sexist attitudes that prevailed at the time and that continue to the present.

Sandra Milo's performance as Pina never for a moment leads you to believe that she is anything other than honourable and respected in her community and while we may be invited to judge her by her affair with the lorry driver, Pietrangeli makes it clear that she is simply a lonely woman, underlined by a beautifully realized sequence in flashback early in the film during a thunderstorm and ensuing power cut. Pina reads a magazine by candlelight as the camera moves into close-up on articles about fashion and holidays, and we see a few drops fall onto a page, which are revealed to be Pina's tears.

The film reveals Milo to be a talented actress with a gift for comedy roles and it's interesting to note that her work and that of Pietrangeli are being rediscovered thanks to streaming services, as her Facebook page would suggest.

As we watched the film what I took to be Milo's naturally voluptuous figure became a subject of interest - her nickname amongst the townsfolk in the film is "Miss Pretty Booty" - and doubt, as it might appear that this was the result of some deliberate exaggeration in the costume department for comic effect, prompting me to put this question on her Facebook page for clarification...:)

With a superficially slight plot about what is essentially a one-night stand Antonio Pietrangeli manages to weave a story with comedy, melancholy and sharply observed social commentary supported by a memorable central performance from Sandra Milo.

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