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Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 24, 2009

    Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Review

    1963's triplet of tales revolving around bizarre relationships, surreal love affairs and social mores, Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow, seems to have been designed to show off the incredibly versatile talents of Italy's premier screen superstars of the era - the gorgeous Sophia Loren and the manically expressive Marcello (La Dolce Vita) Mastroianni. That the pair had already played opposite one another in a number of movies ensured that this trilogy - each individual story revolving around the couple in a variety of estranged and oddball bondings - had a chemistry that was, by now, perfected and immediately audience-winning. Directed by Vittoria De Sica and produced by the great Carlo Ponti (to whom, Loren would have two children), the film is intimate, yet feels expansive, probes some darker desires, yet remains incredibly light and airy, and often comes across as a celluloid pantomime that offers the guarantee of happy endings whilst still dipping its toes into troubled waters. Sixties Italy is treated with broad and colourful strokes - coastal community spirit in one story, high class isolation and flippancy in conflict with urban realism in another, and rooftop assignations and affairs of the heart and of the soul in the final one. Loren's three characters always come out top, no matter how weird and wonderful their dilemmas may be and, even if that seems like some sort of spoiler, the entire film is constructed in such a manner as to make this eventuality a given right from the get-go. The joy of the movie is in the interactions and the wordplay that helps her to get there, and De Sica delivers what, in the UK or America especially, would have been a gritty succession of kitchen-sink dramas were it not for the sheer brevity and floating unrealism of the atmosphere dished-up.

    “They can't arrest her - she's pregnant!

    The first tale, Adelina (written by Eduardo De Filipo) is large-scale and exuberant. Loren's impulsive Adelina sells knock-off cigarettes on the street and, as belligerent as she is, isn't quick or scared enough to run away from the police when they come snooping around this lucrative black market. Barely escaping a jail term because she is pregnant to Mastroianni's harassed-husband Carmine, she formulates a plan to keep themselves making money whilst flaunting the law - basically, this amounts to keeping a bun in the oven every time she is about to have her collar felt. Quite a long story, this is also the film's most visually ambitious. The small coastal town in which the episode is set is shown off with marvellously roving camera-work from DOP Giuseppe Rotunno that literally climbs the slanted alleyways and tracks along the streets and side-walks with pre-John Carpenter panache. He would go on to lens the Jack Nicholson werewolf-satire Wolf and even Dario Argento's lame, but visually-arresting The Stendahl Syndrome. The locale is key to De Sica's sense of era and character. When Adelina is initially let off the hook due to her babe-heavy tummy, there is almost an Oliver!-style pageant that ensues as word-of-mouth about the news crosses the entire hamlet. This eloquent montage sees the message passed from one colourful rogue to another, from street table to tenement window, the entire place giving itself over to thankful rapture until a veritable platoon of little urchins parade en-mass down to the harbour singing of the good tidings. But, far from becoming an annoying sidestep to the tone of the tale, this set-piece is a deliciously OTT slice of pure light-hearted spectacle. It actually sets the vogue for much that will follow. Community comes first and the sense of belonging is paramount. The “us against them” ethic is charmingly depicted rather than nastily swung into play. Each successive occasion that Adelina manages to evade that impending prison term - the kids escalating in number from scene to scene as time goes by - sees the cops, themselves, smirking with admiration for her plucky manoeuvres.

    But, of course, there is also Mastroianni's plight to consider. Poor Carmine is literally being sucked-dry by his delectable wife - his mission to keep her pregnant whenever the law comes calling. The plot takes on farcical proportions when, dishevelled, drained and barely able to stand - a shot of him dropping a crate of oranges to roll down a canted road towards us is immediately metaphoric - it is revealed by the good doctor that he is unable to perform due to extreme malnourishment and lack of energy. Sophia Loren hauling him to bed every night - oh, yes, one sympathises! Faced with not having a baby-pending when the cops make their regular call, Adelina is forced to make a tough decision and the story then segues into what could have been a darker phase altogether. But, once again, with De Sica's wise hand at the helm and barrier-breaking turns from both Loren and Mastroianni, the whole thing smooths over potential trouble-spots and maintains a perfectly even and immensely enjoyable keel. Whilst never laugh-out-loud funny, this offering is still hugely amusing and borderline fantastical. It is tempting to think that this story, alone, could have been a successful full-length feature in its own right. The scenario of the never-ending family and the predicaments that their parents keep getting themselves into certainly has some mileage in it and, even the finale of the piece, feels cute and satisfying, you can't help wishing that, maybe, it had gone on a little longer. One image - of Loren's bountiful Adelina pressed against the prison bars in a white nightie as Carmine gets an accomplice to serenade her from the street - is astoundingly alluring. And, of course, the entire trilogy makes no apology for playing extensively upon the siren's exquisite looks. That she also had amazing presence and talent beyond her most obvious attributes is, of course, well known ... but, on a purely aesthetic level, the movie would be a winner.

    “I've lived like a puppet - deaf, blind ... oblivious to the rights of others. I realised that, while I was dancing with you, I felt alive for the first time ... in your arms.”

    Entitled Anna, the second story, which is the shortest, is another fable. Written by Cesare Zavattini, this is a play on ideals, dreams, morals and relationships across the class divide, it is set in, and around, a car during an ill-fated trip into the country. Rich-chick Anna (Loren) is blithely seeking to escape the humdrum tedium of her stagnant existence. With her hugely successful husband away on business in Stuttgart, she has taken the Rolls out for a spin with the intention of picking up the lonely guy she met the night before. Perhaps she wants adventure and rescue from the boring, lifeless plight that ails her. Perhaps she wants a distraction. Maybe she just wants a little bit of rough. For Mastroianni's struggling writer, Renzo, she offers up a taste of forbidden fruit. Yet, far from being the intoxicating princess that he danced with the previous night, Anna's jaded and wistful fantasies for another life fly in total contradiction to her arrogance and sense of superiority to almost everyone around her. Her refinement and apparent loneliness turn him on, but he cannot balance this out with the enormous wealth and all the privileges that it brings her ... all trappings that she claims to despise. “You don't think I'm sincere, do you? Anna asks him as she allows him to nervously take the wheel of the prestigious car, and Renzo struggles to keep up with her confidence and teasing nature. It seems that the further out of the city they go, the more assured and tricksy she becomes. Renzo is out of his depth on several levels.

    When a violent swerve to avoid a teen selling flowers by the roadside leaves them stranded, some true colours are forced to come out and the story takes a not exactly unsurprising detour. Once again, the set-piece is clever and wryly amusing, but the end result is vaguely unsatisfying and, in the context of the three tales, sort of sticks out like a sore thumb in style and sentiment. What definitely wows is the amazing photography by Rotunno who, this time out, does some brilliant work capturing the leads as they travel down the road, his camera racing alongside them, sitting in front or behind them, and even moving around them once the top comes down. Steven Spielberg took this very thing to its CG-augmented conclusion in War Of The Worlds, of course, when Tom Cruise and kids flee the city in the only working car in America, but it is vital to note that Rotunno does much the same here without such techno-trickery at his disposal.

    Mastroianni is playing yet another in a long line of suffering buffoons, but, far removed from his worn-out and shabby husband in Adelina, this time out he affects a sort of proto-Bruce Willis range of expressions - part smug, part hangdog, but all empathetic. His final gesture is one of life-affirming resignation and, for a second, he actually appears to be happy with his lot in life ... well, okay with it, we should say. Loren, on the other hand, is coldly desirable, almost sympathetic and patently too damn beautiful to leave at the roadside no matter what your sexual preferences might be. Anna is a short story that certainly runs its course, but there is still a degree of intelligent writing and characterisation taking place within to keep it intriguing despite lacking the warmth and good-natured savvy of its two companions.

    “You think I'm a slave to sex, but I have a soul too, remember that. Look, there's only a hair between a devil and a saint.”

    The third and final story in the trilogy is also, arguably, the best. Entitled Mara, and written by Cesare Zavattini again, this is the one that caused a little bit of controversy with the censors at the time of its UK release. Not only does it have Loren cavorting around in a variety of skimpy attire, even performing a delicious strip-show for Mastroianni's permanently on-heat civil servant Rusconi, but its plot centres on the conflict between the sins of the flesh on a professional basis and the dedication of the clergy. It's not exactly a marriage made in Heaven. Although essentially a comedy - and this, out of the all three stories, is certainly the most amusing - Mara confronts some issues that were baiting and thought-provoking even in Italy, let alone among the more strait-laced attitudes of early sixties England. A high-class hooker living in a nice apartment and enjoying the regular business of an assortment of well-to-to clients, Mara (Loren, of course) is happy-go-lucky and fairly comfortable with her life. One extremely smitten regular customer, Mastroianni's lascivious and likeable idiot, Rusconi, wants her to marry him and comes a-calling all the time, laden with gifts, promises and an infernal itch in his pants. Mara loves him in her own way and would happily oblige him in the marriage stakes if he could just ensure that it would be worth her while. However, in the adjoining rooftop apartment is a young trainee priest called Umberto (Gianni Ridolfi) who is staying with his prudish grandparents until setting off for his final year of religious study. Naturally he is getting put off his scriptures whenever he spies Mara prancing about in nothing but a barely wrapped towel and, literally overnight, he makes one of those knee-jerk decisions that could spell disaster for his career-path. But then again, she is tempting enough to get even a saint hot under the collar, isn't she?

    With Umberto wanting to drop his cassock and take long walks along the beach with her, his grandmother, distraught at this development, intent on making life miserable for her and even threatening to get together a petition to have her kicked out of the building, and Rusconi slavering endlessly over her, life is suddenly becoming very complicated for Mara. De Sica really enjoys this story and we are back on similar devil-may-care ground as Adelina. The various little set-pieces are delightfully protracted - conversations turn full circle, allegiances are swapped, desires are elaborated upon - and all the while poor Rusconi seemingly gets nowhere. The rooftop environment has a charmingly surreal bent, sort of reminiscent of the sets designed for Hitchcock's Rear Window or Rope and, as ever, Loren becomes the complete focus of our attention. As with Adelina she gets a chance to vent her spleen in pure, out and out Italiano verbal barrages, her ensuing argument with Umberto's grandmother a veritable tour de force of venomous moral warfare. To hear her speaking in her native tongue is always a wonder and it is funny how easy it becomes to understand what she is saying - or Mastroianni, for that matter (who really only wants one thing, so it is hardly difficult to decipher him) - even without looking at the subtitles.

    The comedy is fairly ripe and Mastroianni even does a spot of Benny Hill-esque wooing and wowing - even howling like a dog when Loren does her infamous striptease - in his attempts to get Mara into bed. You can't help but feel for him. He's had a tough time during all three stories but, somehow, the ceaseless thwarting of his seductions with Mara become almost unbearable even for us, the audience. Although bright and light and played mainly for laughs, it is pertinent to discover just how much taboo-prodding the film gets away with during this finale. We are siding with a whore, whose morals and determination are the only dependable things on offer and, without her, there would be no chance of a happy outcome for anyone. True, she is the reason for all the upset in the first place - but this is purely down to weak-willed men who fall under her own unwitting spell and not exactly a trap that she has purposely left for them to fall into. She is the catalyst in their lives and, with her cod-gospel sermon to Umberto about her own personal Saint, she becomes a figure of devotion just as powerful and potent and inspirational as any he will eventually come across in his ecumenical studies. And her own sacrifice - a vow made on the spur of the moment for a good greater than her any she, herself, strives for - is no less of a commitment, in comparative terms, to that of the young priest-to-be ... especially when you consider its implications for the pent-up Rusconi. Smart, visually sumptuous and dripping with the perpetual tease of naughtiness, Mara is a wonderful final statement in a movie that peels back the layers of class, sex and social values, and does so with its tongue nudging gently into its cheek all the while.

    Each story is accompanied by lavish and playful score from Armando Trovajoli who, in a lengthy and wide-ranging career, has provided music for everything from historical epics, gun-toting thrillers, saucy chambermaid farces and comedies. His score here is ebullient and joyful, warmly coursing through the stories without ever swamping or crowding what are, in the main, dialogue-driven character studies-cum-situational comedies. Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow, or Ieri, Oggi, Domani to give its native title, may not be a masterpiece of European cinema, but it is a perfectly enjoyable way to while away a couple of hours. All the cast are excellent, but the film obviously belongs to the two leads, who are clearly having a ball with their warped-out, larger-than-life roles. Both can swing from comic to dramatic angles, often within the same scene and despite the profundity of gentle farce, both are equally adept at creating an ambience within each tale that is haunting - something that, really speaking, only European actors could imbue in films from this era, and Italians especially.

    Hugely enjoyable and highly recommended, folks.