The Priest's Wife - 1970
The Priest's Wife - Released December 22, 1970 (Italy). Directed by Dino Risi
aka: La moglie del prete
This comedy film can't commit 100% to being a comedy. By the end The Priest's Wife has squandered a lot of it's funniness to finally roll credits after a scene in which the love-struck Catholic priest (a very controlled and precise Marcello Mastroianni) seems to have been re-seduced by the church and is now insipidly hoping to keep his engaged bride (Sophia Loren) dangling while he enjoys the splendor of a sudden appointment to a high rank (with extravagant perks) within the priest hierarchy in Rome.
Getting to such a dismal ending doesn't seem pre-ordained, though. The Priest's Wife starts off with an excellent and humorous car-duel section in which Sophia (as Valeria) has suddenly discovered her boyfriend of four years actually has a wife and kids elsewhere, so in a white-hot rage she charges after him in a tiny Fiat and he flees in a separate little Fiat. This turns into an absurd car chase and demolition section with the small cars crashing into one another and being steadily torn apart, like two Circus clown cars in a mock bull-fighting match.
Later, Valeria is suicidal over the betrayal and calls a suicide hotline on a whim, briefly talks to Marcello (as Priest Don Mario) who can't really convince her of anything, and she hangs up and takes pills anyway, ending up in a hospital where she then calls on the priest to come visit her.
A friendship and then a hesitant and goofy infatuation develops between the two. Mastroianni and Loren work on screen together like a perfect Swiss time-piece, but the script (Ruggero Maccari and Bernardino Zapponi) can't let them be and starts smuggling in a secondary movie about the plight of priests and a look into the kind of working conditions in which they live. There's no reason all these comedy and non-comedy elements couldn't have gelled together, though, funny movies have been able to stay comedies and ingest all kinds of human condition side trips since at least Chaplin's films. But The Priest's Wife can't handle that mission and schisms, reducing the main characters into flat caricatures and Mastroianni's masterful fumbling and groping loses its charm.
Director Risi injects subtle commentary throughout about the priestly life, and mostly with a great deal of sympathy amid the humor. As long as the movie is a romantic comedy (the majority of the film) about an extremely unlikely couple, Risi can get away with just about anything, show and say anything to us about whether he likes, hates, or is just amused about the Catholic universe, as Loren and Mastroianni are just that good and we're on their side. But, and here's the main problem with the movie, Loren (who is the main focus of Risi's camera throughout The Priest's Wife) is apparently supposed to be cuckolded at the end just as she was at the beginning, but this time by the entire Catholic Church, and that just isn't a large enough or good enough "gag" to pay off the audience after 103 minutes (I want the romantic comedy to end like a romantic comedy, not a documentary). In essence, Valeria is reduced to having been a pair of eyes that allowed us to roam about inside the priest's world and to ultimately see it as artificial, constrained by cultural and family pressures, with prestige used as a poor substitute for human feeling (this secondary messaging can be interesting, though, in one section Risi seems to be insinuating that there's not a lot of difference between priests and rock and roll stars, particularly in their treatment by and to women). But because of the ending the movie has the feeling of "bait and switch" and this is not fair to Valeria, the movie audience, and just not very funny.
Loren is very good as the expressive and fiery Valeria, and Mastroianna plays the Priest Don Mario with respect and constraint (except he's kind of goofy, but, then, this was a comedy at first). Location shots around Padua, Tuscany, and Rome are gorgeous with nice cinematography by Alfio Contini. The wardrobe is very 1970 (and colorful) and Loren gets to wear a variety of outfits. The car demolition intro to The Priest's Wife has fantastic stunt driving.
Original Page Jan 2018
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