The Secret of Santa Vittoria
Two years after he dropped the critically lauded Sidney Poitier picture, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Stanley Kramer flew over to Italy to begin what-would-be his next big feature, an adaptation of Robert Crichton’s first novel, The Secret of Santa Vittoria. Kramer, the acclaimed director behind the courtroom drama, Judgement at Nuremberg, and the epic comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, took it upon himself to envision the film as a “celebration of principle and resistance” with townspeople refusing to co-operate with tyrannical overseers – in this case, the Germany army. This is a typical affair for a Hollywood narrative, the good vs. evil plotline. However, all is not what it seems once you realise that what is going on is not actually very exciting – mass wine hiding from the Nazis. But somehow, Kramer and screenwriters, William Rose and Ben Maddow transfer the material from the original novel into this likeable, colourful and lightweight WWII movie.
Following the fall of the tyrant, Benito Mussolini and his fascist regime, The Secret of Santa Vittoria takes place in – where else? – the hillside town of Santa Vittoria. There, a new mayor is installed in the form of a lovable, wine drinking buffoon, Italo Bombolini (Anthony Quinn). He discovers soon after Mussolini’s resignation, that German forces have invaded Italy to occupy most of its peninsula, and that they are arriving at Santa Vittoria to take all of its wine. Bombolini declares to the townsfolk that they must start hiding millions of bottles of wine in a cave before the German army arrive – under the gaze of commander, Sepp von Prum (Hardy Krüger).
Perhaps the biggest strength of The Secret of Santa Vittoria is how thoroughly enjoyable it is. It is essentially a bombastic comedy, but a very charming one at that. The location of Santa Vittoria, which was shot at Anticoli Corrado is packed with detail of historic Italian architecture and is filmed in a picturesque way where the surroundings are enhanced. The sun beats down on the townsfolk, the heat seeps through the screen, which the cinematography takes advantage of and uses it as the perfect location to shoot a WWII movie, without the need to display horrific imagery. In fact, in many ways, it feels like a musical. The entire town is crowded with townspeople, on every street and every corner. It is very refreshing to enter the world of this film, especially when your last film was something bleak or harrowing as say something like Army of Shadows. It paints this huge grin on your face as every second off the runtime ticks away.
Anthony Quinn as the lively mayor, Bombolini, is very expressive and very flamboyant in his mannerisms. Quinn was, of course, typecast in very macho roles – think of his time as the cruel strongman, Zampanò in Fellini’s La Strada as the definitive example of this. This is a slightly different affair. From the start, Bombolini acts as this very ignorant man, which is where a lot of the humour comes from. He attempts to have a connection with his Daughter, but as soon as she talks about sex, Bombolini steers clear from that conversation and sends her to her Mother, played by a fiery Anna Magnani. But as soon as Bombolini becomes mayor, he decides to act a lot more rationally, even if some of the characteristics are still a little ridiculous. He fashions himself to Machiavelli, he pretends to be inept from Prum’s questioning to where the missing wine is. With Quinn’s character, there is still traces of machoism, but there is a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face that just makes the character come alive without the need to be serious.
Hardy Krüger as Prum is also a highlight. Prum is a prideful and affectionate leader towards the army. No matter how times his soldiers tell him that there is no wine to be found, he is simply unable to give up and continues searching for the bottles. Bombolini and Prum have many a confrontation in a battle of who can outwit one another. From when they first meet, to figuring out that Bombolini is lying about the bottle count, to the final standoff – there is a certain good sportsmanship when they are busy squabbling over the missing boatload of bottles. Bombolini fears Prum as he attempts to take control over the situation, and you can see the gears grind in Prum’s head when Bombolini is dancing around his questioning. But when it’s over, they pat each other on the back and leave, metaphorically speaking. It is rather odd to comprehend as any real-life Nazi would probably just shoot the man for being so evasive to an interrogation for so long, but it works alongside Kramer’s fantasy envisioning of the world.
One of the biggest problems with The Secret of Santa Vittoria’s is that the storytelling gets saggy and loose, adding in unnecessary subplots with no connection to the main act. There are three sets of two people, each trying to rekindle their love and affection for one another. There are Bombolini and his aggravated wife, Rosa whom she kicks out of the house, but over the course of the Nazis occupation, they rekindle their fondness for each other. The rich countess, Catherina, and the poor Tufa’s relationship are plonked in for the sake of convolution, and then Prum jumps in making it a love triangle. And finally perhaps the least interesting of the three – Bombolini’s daughter, Angela is developing her romance with her boyfriend Fabio which is largely forgettable. Each of these, apart from Bombolini and his wife, which is understandable considering their situation, are thinly developed and go nowhere. The Secret of Santa Vittoria tries to swivel around these chunks of loose narrative and stumbles as a result making it relatively incoherent. It is filler content to pass the two-hour runtime when just one subplot would’ve provided the necessary character background.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a largely well-made if a misunderstood and relatively forgotten film. It takes its wine plot seriously and it runs smoothly throughout, but also sprinkles in a good chuckle here and there. Kramer and the crew seem to know that the story is relatively humdrum. But if you look closely, and pay careful attention to detail, its own secret is how to make a story about hiding wine absorbing – and The Secret of Santa Vittoria is just that. Sure, it certainly lacks the finer touches, but for what it offers, there is a lot of exceptional talent on board. Funny, beautifully photographed and compelling, The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a diamond in the rough.