A Brief Vacation

Year: 1973. Running time: 112 minutes. Color. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Starring Florinda Bolkan and Renato Salvatori. Aspect ratio: 1.66:1. In Italian with optional English subtitles. Mono. DVD release by Home Vision Entertainment.

Review by David Gurevich

If you are a consummate list-maker, who will rank as the greatest Italian director? It is a safe bet that Fellini will come out on top, and the most important reason is that after all the political and avant-garde fashions are gone his work endures in the same way a fairy tale does. After Fellini, it's each to his own taste. Some will pick Antonioni, the chronicler of European alienation; but, much as I love The Blow-Up, I really wouldn't look forward to sitting through the two hours of Il Grido or La Notte again. Others go for Pasolini, the '60s rebel poet, but do his films look as good today as they did in the Cinematheque days? Only if you compare his Gospel according to St. Matthew to Mel Gibson's latest effort. Visconti, possibly, although a lot of his operatic décor may look tired by now. (My personal favorite is Lina Wertmuller, but I could be in the minority.) Vittorio de Sica has a good chance to make the Top Ten, but I daresay his work, with the shining exception of The Bicycle Thief, has been retired to the film historians' ghetto, for a very simple reason: for a classic, he was just too damn popular.

Unlike the critical / political darlings (the two are hard to separate in Italy, which has always vied with France as to whose culture is more engagé) like Pasolini or Antonioni, De Sica was first and foremost a populist who started out as an actor — miles away from the aristocratic Visconti or poet maudit Pasolini. This Napolitano came up the hard way, through dozens of silly dramas and comedies, which meant that popular acclaim, not just FIPRESCI prizes, had to count with him. Does it mean he simply got lucky when the postwar leftist mood carried neorealism to the top of the critical pecking order? Possibly; but it was Rossellini, an architect's son, who made Rome, Open City, a great film that was an artist's reflection on postwar Italy; it was De Sica, who had once taken clerical jobs to feed his family, who made The Bicycle Thief, a heart-wrenching story of a kid and his father. Guess which one was the filmgoers' favorite. And, incidentally — which one stacks better now?

As a populist filmmaker, De Sica had to change with his audiences. As Italy went through a boom, he went along, making sometimes melodramatic, sometimes hilarious, Sophia Loren vehicles such as Two Women, Marriage Italian Style, and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Towards the very end of his career, he went back to the days of war to make the critically acclaimed (and much overrated) The Garden of Finzi-Continis (1970), and then in 1973 he made an all-out attempt to return to his roots, called A Brief Vacation.

The whole concept couldn't be simpler and fits in snugly in Guillaume Apollinaire's acid observation that "illness is a poor man's vacation." Indeed, the long-suffering Clara is worn out from hard factory work and having to support a family of seven; the doctors suspect she might have TB and send to her to an Alpine sanatorium for cure, and that is a true vacation for her, filled with humanity and even love. De Sica's politics had mellowed somewhat: he is still merciless towards the back-breaking factory conditions, yet he has little sympathy for socialized medicine, either (the patients' attempt at a hunger strike comes off as farcical). But then again, politics were secondary to him, a lip service to the Italian social convention. As Clara, filled with forebodings, looks out the train window, she sees endless Maoist graffiti; you can tell that Maoist politics are the last thing on her mind. A humanist, De Sica looks beyond politics; he has no illusions about the dehumanization of poverty as he unsentimentally dissects Clara's entire parasitic family, who are only too happy to accept her hard-earned liras and at the same time keep her down as an obedient wife, never mind that she is on her last legs.

By modern standards, there is nothing fancy about the sanatorium where Clara gets her chance at happiness: the accommodations are modest (though the Alps are anything but), and discipline is stern. But even this humble setup provides her with an opportunity to find normalcy; not having to break her back, she begins paying attention to other things in life — reading, music, nature, friendship, and, finally, love. Although De Sica had polished his common touch over the years — in its own very small way, the film works as a melodrama saved from gushiness by scenes of harsh realism — his aesthetics had not grown more sophisticated: as Clara feels stirrings of love for a fellow patient, De Sica has her read Anna Karenina, conveniently left behind by the former room occupant. Clara is played by the gorgeous Florinda Bolcan whose cheekbones are a bit too model-like for her to be completely credible as a worn-out Calabrian factory woman, but she does a decent yeowoman's effort. She helps De Sica parlay his message with a small "m": you have to appreciate small things in this life, and you have to strive to be human at all times. In a sense, this makes this film "a brief vacation" for the viewer as well.

A Brief Vacation is now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment in a new digital transfer that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The disc includes excerpts from director De Sica's Woman Times Seven, starring Shirley Maclaine, Peter Sellers, and Michael Caine. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.