By Joseph Temple
*** WARNING: SPOILER ALERT ***
Following the successful invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943, Fascist leader Benito Mussolini is swiftly removed from power while a new Italian government signs an armistice agreement with the Allies. Unfortunately, what appears to be a great triumph for Britain and America ends up becoming a hollow victory. Within a few short months, German forces occupy Northern Italy and establish a puppet government against those in the south. The battle for Italy’s future was just beginning.
That is the setting for Stanley Kramer’s 1969 film The Secret of Santa Vittoria starring the late Anthony Quinn and Hardy Krüger. Based on Robert Crichton’s book, the movie takes place in the small hillside village of Santa Vittoria where the fall of Mussolini has led to a power vacuum. With indifference amongst the local population to this revolutionary change, Italo Bombolini, the lovable drunk played brilliantly by Quinn suddenly becomes the town’s new mayor. But after learning that the Germans are on the move, he quickly sobers up and begins mobilizing the entire population to protect its greatest asset—1,317,000 bottles of fine wine. Hidden safely away in a nearby cave, a game of psychological chess is played by the mayor and Captain von Prum who is eager to steal every single bottle before he and his soldiers leave.
Released during the golden age of World War II movies that included Patton, Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Dirty Dozen, Kramer’s contribution to the genre is noteworthy. Filmed almost entirely in the Italian commune of Anticoli Corrado, the beautiful scenery is greatly enhanced by numerous locals who were used throughout the movie as extras. According to IMDB, the actual Santa Vittoria had modernized greatly since 1943, making it impractical for a Second World War period film as production started in 1968.
Adding to its picturesque location, Anthony Quinn steals the show with his larger than life performance. The buffoonish Bombolini will definitely make you laugh out loud, including one hilarious scene where he intends to punish the man caught sleeping with his daughter. But he’ll also leave you at the edge of your seat, especially during his intense negotiations with von Prum over the million bottles that have gone missing. His character makes you realize just how important wine is to Italian culture and why a whole village bases their entire identity on what Krüger’s character facetiously calls “fermented juice.” Whether its Chianti, Sangiovese or Barbera, the audience never learns exactly what type of wine is being hidden away. All you know is that giving it away to Germany is like “paying a stranger to sleep with your wife” according to Bombolini.
Unfortunately for the folks at MGM, The Secret of Santa Vittoria didn’t fare well at the box office. According to Jeffrey Kauffman at blu-ray.com, the year 1969 marked a turning point in the history of film with counterculture movies like Easy Rider taking over the silver screen. Big budget flicks with older casts had suddenly became yesterdays news, resulting in just $6.5 million in receipts during its initial run. However, just like a fine wine, the film has gotten better with age. So whether you’re an oenophile or a history buff, you’ll definitely need to check this out the next time you feel like being in a retro mood. Ciao!
You might also like: