17 December 2007 | zogz54
very funny and rather beguiling
It must first be stated that if Ettore Scola were to remake this movie today, it would probably be very different in one regard: it would be careful to feature more fully developed African characters. As it is, the film is only really interested in its (pre-dominantly male) European characters, and can be accused of the same fault that Chinua Achebe laid at the door of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' (of which this film is a kind of comic variation), that of using Africa as a mere backdrop to an investigation of European problems. Nevertheless, though the film is undeniably Eurocentric in its outlook, it neither demeans nor patronises Africans; there are no bloodthirsty cannibals, noble savages or grinning simpletons here. Alberto Sordi's protagonist has his preconceptions about the continent undercut in several amusing scenes, most neatly when he first arrives, and proceeds to film the 'exotic' locals, only to be disconcerted when he realises that he himself is being filmed by an African armed with a bigger, more expensive camera; Sordi's outlandish safari gear renders him as much of an object of amazed curiosity to members of the indigenous population as they are to him.
The action takes a while to get going, with some over-extended wildlife sequences taxing one's patience a little, but once things are truly underway, a gently humorous odyssey unfolds, with false starts, mishaps, and odd little diversions impeding our two heroes' search for the enigmatic Titino. The contrast in the acting styles of Sordi and Blier is highly effective: the former is appropriately blustery and pompous, teetering at times on the edge of self-parody, whilst Blier underplays for all he's worth, and all but steals the show. They make for a genuinely engaging duo, and Manuel Zarzo and Nino Manfredi are memorable in supporting roles. The excellence of the actors is matched by that of the script, which is admirably relaxed and expansive, never overdoing its comic set-pieces (a stand-out example is some very funny business involving a confusion over cigarettes and a tape-recorder).
The accusations of escapism that were levelled at the film when it first appeared (1968, after all) seem misplaced today: what Scola presents is not an indulgent, soft-headed retreat from the maladies of European capitalism, but a final image of uncertainty, circularity and psychological conflict. The film seems more relevant today than many of the more dated simplifications, pipe dreams and inanities that abounded in its year of release, and surely deserves a DVD run here in Britain. With its faults, thoroughly recommended.