23 March 2008 | Bunuel1976
FRINE, CORTIGIANA D' ORIENTE (Mario Bonnard, 1953) **1/2
I had never heard of this one when it was announced for a late-night screening on Italian TV and, frankly, I only opted to watch it in view of director Bonnard’s involvement – since he later made THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1959), starring Steve Reeves and co-directed by Sergio Leone.
However, it turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise, if not exactly a hidden gem. Incidentally, being a black-and-white production, it emerges as one of the last efforts to be made during Italy’s second – and, in a way, most interesting – phase of epic film-making, which is highlighted by such artistic triumphs as THE IRON CROWN (1941) and FABIOLA (1949). I say “most interesting” because, from what little I’ve seen, these films were decidedly pictorially stylish rather than merely ‘spectacular’. FRINE itself, in fact, is both literate and atmospheric…but also rather sexy (with a handful of unexpected scenes of fleeting nudity), which is an element that got considerably downplayed in later juvenile, low-brow and generally glum outings!
The narrative involves an aristocratic girl (the statuesque Elena Kleus) whose influential senator father opposes the current ruling tyrant – so, the latter frames him for the theft of a precious sacred jewel and has both the old man and his wife burned at the stake and their property confiscated, while the daughter is sold into slavery. Ironically, the one to buy her (unbeknownst to the girl) is the very man who had insinuated himself in her house as a beggar and planted the incriminating jewels; however, he’s not one to let an opportunity for profit go by and quickly sees the heroine (renamed Phryne, an appellation she picked up off of an Athenian prostitute thus marked) rise to the top of the ranks as a courtesan – swaying all the men in sight, who are willing to part with a considerable chunk of their wealth for her favors!
However, she has a hidden agenda: determined to right past wrongs, especially after her native Thebes is eroded by Alexander The Great, she not only uses the money to help her destitute people but also harbors ambitions to rebuild the city as a means of regaining her own stature. The Athenian council refuses such an offer and puts her on trial for self-aggrandisement; an orator (Pierre Cressoy), Phryne’s true love who had previously suffocated his jealousy in alcohol, regains his wits enough to assume her defense – while the guilt of her reptilian pimp (Giulio Donnini) is eventually exposed by the latter’s own deaf-mute but imposing black servant (John Kitzmiller). Tamara Lees also appears as the ‘deposed’ No. 1 courtesan – who even gets snubbed for the model of Aphrodite being sculpted by her own lover!
While perhaps only middling as drama, as I said, the film retains interest even today as an example of a genre in transition.