Just because “The Secret of Santa Vittoria” didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it will not work for others. In fact, I can think of at least five people in my life who could easily overlook the things that bug me about it and be delighted nevertheless.
A charming-if-flawed adaptation of Robert Crichton’s best-selling 1966 novel, “Secret” tells the story of a close-knit community that banded together to hide over a million bottles of wine from the Germans before the occupation of their small Italian village after the fall of Mussolini in 1943.
First off, we can all agree that director Stanley Kramer and his cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno, who also shot Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” and John Huston’s “The Bible … In the Beginning,” have succeeded in presenting Santa Vittoria as a hamlet worth occupying.
With its picturesque hillside villas, stunning mountain vistas and charmingly retro public square, the film nearly plays like a travel brochure for the Italian town of Anticoli Corrado, which stood in for Santa Vittoria after it became too touristy to use in the film.
Another thing we can agree on is that Anthony Quinn, the ebullient spitfire from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Zorba the Greek,” is terrific in “Secret” as Bombolini the Italian, Santa Vittoria’s habitually plastered mayor who concocts and executes the master scheme and then has to play dumb when the Germans finally invade, a full hour into the 139-minute film.
It’s a spirited performance and Quinn gives Bombolini his all, which is fortunate because the rest of the characters come off as oppressive (Anna Magnani as Bombolini’s shrewish wife, Rosa), detached (Virna Lisi as the town beauty), mannered (Patrizia Valturri as Bombolini’s burgeoning daughter) or just plain bored (Sergio Franchi as a deserter).
The problem is that each of these characters is gifted their own subplot to go along with the stuff about the townspeople and the wine. Franchi and Lisi share a dull romance that comes to a needless head at the tail end of the picture, and the relentless bickering between Bombolini and Rosa is nowhere near as fun as it sounds.
I haven’t read Crichton’s novel, but I’m assuming even fans of the book will admit the film would be more entertaining if it were streamlined. On the flip side, overcomplicating things has become Stanley Kramer’s forte, as evidenced by Kramer’s equally overlong and overbearing “Ship of Fools” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
As previously stated, it’s possible some viewers may get swept up in the Franchi/Lisi romance, and maybe they’ll find the humor in Anna Magnani relentlessly beating Anthony Quinn with a giant rolling pin. However, this much is certain in “The Secret of Santa Vittoria”: Anticoli Corrado sure is a mesmerizing place to spend a couple of hours.
Rated: M for violence and mature themes
Director: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Hardy Kruger
★★ (out of ★★★★)