I felt sorry for Faenza, who directed this film. The novel it's based upon, La Lunga Vita di Marianna Ucria (The Silent Duchess on the American market), published in 1990 and a prestigious literary award-winning bestseller in Italy, is one of my favourite works of fiction. I was therefore never going to be easy on him. However, the fact Faenza co-scripted this film with Petraglia, one of my favourite screenwriters (who also penned La Meglio Gioventù) did comfort me somewhat. What I discovered was a shorthand version of the novel. Had the film incorporated most of the episodes and characterisations, it would have been a 3-hour feature at least. Seeing as there's been a return to 3-hour-plus running-times in recent years, I do think it's a shame this feature wasn't longer after all. Some fairly crucial elements were unfortunately totally missing.
In brief, this is the plot: set in Sicily (Palermo and the surrounding countryside) in the mid-18th century, Marianna Ucria is a 12-year-old deaf and mute duchess, the youngest of five children. At the beginning of the story she is taken to a public execution by her beloved grandfather, played by Philippe Noiret (though in the novel it's her father - ??!). He hopes that such a horrid spectacle will shock her into hearing and speaking again. As soon as Marianna turns 13, she is married off to a creepy middle-aged uncle, Duke Pietro, who seems to have more than a soft spot for her. She on the other hand is repulsed by him, but bears him three daughters by the time she turns 16. Very soon after she also gives birth to the male heir he so ardently desired. Let us not forget this is 18th century Sicily, not exactly a matriarchal society, and a very opulent and decadent one at that (which was its beauty as well as its ugliness).
The film is not as successful as the novel in conveying the way in which being female was considered almost a disability in such patriarchal societies. Even English Victorian "medicine" considered being female as a sort of permanent state of infirmity! Marianna's literal disability, her being deaf and mute is therefore a materialisation of this concept. But in the novel, and to a lesser extent in the film, she turns this disability of hers into an advantage, and her growth from a completely oppressed being to a self-aware, self-reliant, accomplished and ultimately, content woman in her adulthood is rendered in a subtle, psychologically credible and inspiring way. It would be tempting to view Marianna as a sort of proto-feminist, but in actual fact she's only someone trying to survive in a very ruthless and oppressive society. No concessions are made to modern sensibilities, and thankfully the film conveys this quite faithfully too.
The two actresses who play Marianna at different stages in her life are engaging and well-cast, though brunettes - Marianna was a blonde in the novel (Emmanuelle Laborit, the French actress who plays Marianna in adulthood is also deaf and mute in real life). Showing the child-actress Eva Grieco (who is outstanding, by the way) as pregnant or giving birth is probably one of the most poignant and shocking things about the film. However, I was disappointed to see how little Marianna's children, her daughters Giuseppa, Felice and Manina and her son Mariano were fleshed out in the film. Also, the housekeeper Innocenza, a wonderful character in the novel, is totally absent in the film. Likewise, Camaleo, the man with whom the now-widowed Marianna starts an Abelard and Eloise-type correspondence, plays a part so marginal, I was incredulous they'd included his character at all.
Instead, perhaps to keep the French producers happy, in the film Marianna is made to have such a correspondence with Grass, the French tutor (played by Bernard Giraudeau), hired to school Marianna's children. He is eventually fired by Marianna's brother Carlo, a priest, who thinks Grass's teachings are too progressive, hence heretical (but in the novel, Carlo's character is actually one of the most positive). In the novel, Marianna's tender love affair with her man-servant Saro makes her discovers sex isn't just violence and marital obligation or a despicable, mechanical way to produce children but can be beautiful and empowering. But in the film it's touched upon so briefly, I wondered why she bothered at all.
Furthermore, the wonderful character of Saro is played by an Armani model-turned-actor, Lorenzo Crespi, who is little more than a pouty Sicilian beauty rather than a well-rounded actor capable of conveying the subtlety of such a character. Marianna's relationship with Saro's sister, the maid Fila (who has an unhealthy, verging-on-incestuous obsession with her brother), is thankfully included, though you never really get a sense of Fila's feelings towards Marianna. I also enjoyed the fleshing out of Marianna's grandmother in the film, played by the gutsy actress Laura Betti, who famously plays the villainess Regina in Bertolucci's 1900. "Hell is only Palermo without patisseries", is her quip against a bigoted aunt, a nun, who threatens her with hell and damnation at one point. The final chapters of the book, in which Marianna leaves Sicily with Fila and travels to Naples and Rome, are rushed to a hasty conclusion with entire crucial elements and episodes, such as a tragic ship-wreck, having been totally omitted.
Faenza's film is a list of bullet-points of the novel, beautifully filmed, but too often in a rush to get to the next episode or theme. It's as if Faenza were afraid of not managing to cram the story into a 108-minute feature. Still, it could have been far worse: a silly bodice-ripper, a story about a proto-feminist with a 21st-century sensibility or a film crammed-full of sensationalist elements, such as graphic rape scenes between a 13-year-old and a middle-aged creep. Instead, we were spared such atrocities and given, at least, a tasteful and well-hewn historic film, so sadly lacking in oomph.
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