Sophia Loren and Lina Wertmuller unite again for “Francesca and Nunziata,” a plush costumer that — through the halfway mark, at least — proves a luxuriously snug fit for them both. Intended (like their prior collaboration “Saturday, Sunday and Monday”) for telecast at home, pic looks fine on the bigscreen, but ultimately suffers from over-compression of Maria Orsini Natale’s sprawling historical novel. Nonetheless, its satisfactions as a handsome, old-fashioned star vehicle for one very handsome old-school star should travel well, particularly via prestige tube sales.
Still stunning — in face and well-corseted, cleavage-baring figure — at 66, Loren is ideally suited to the role of Francesca, a Neapolitan commoner whose looks, vivaciousness and ambition won the hand of Prince Giordano Montorsi (Giancarlo Giannini) near the 19th century’s close. Story is picked up some years later, as the aristocratic couple fulfill a sacred vow: Francesca had promised the Virgin Mary they’d adopt an orphan if their youngest child survived an illness. They visit a convent ward and select angelic blonde 9-year-old Nunziata.
The genial prince is content to let his spouse handle the family finances, and, heiress to her father’s pasta factory, Francesca is a businesswoman with hard-nosed negotiation skills. She finds a savvy protege in the foundling Nunziata.
But an aggressive, near-scandalous business coup by Francesca finally pushes the prince to enter the world of commerce himself. His disastrous foray into banking soon begins draining the Montorsi coffers.
Francesca tries to ward off bankruptcy by arranging a marriage between eldest son Federico (Raoul Bova) and a shipping magnate’s daughter. This news is gloomily received by both Federico and now-grown Nunziata (Claudia Gerini), who’ve kept a mutual passion hidden. Their secret out at last — at least to a sternly disapproving mama — Nunziata reluctantly consents to her own arranged wedlock, but demands as dowry the means to start a competing pasta company.
Script by Wertmuller and vet stage/screen writer Elvio Porta plays to the director’s familiar, boisterous strengths in the early reels, as life in the Montorsi villa and factory are detailed with affectionate humor. Helmer has always been best at negotiating just such broadly sketched social milieux, and it’s a joy watching Loren — whose earthiness, summer-storm temperament and regal glamour are all at full wattage here — preside over the near-chaos.
Pic loses luster, however, as its early idyllicism gives way to end-of-an-era melancholy and tragic incident. Drastic condensing of source material becomes ever more obvious, particularly when Loren is stuck with a climactic speech that’s all too plainly an awkward distillation of several “missing” chapters. One hopes additional footage exists to flesh out later reels more gracefully in miniseries form.
If Orsini Natale’s story evokes comparisons with “Il Gattopardo” or “1900,” Wertmuller’s execution falls short of those works’ truly epic gravitas. Neither director nor star stray far enough from seriocomic charm to risk making Francesca’s actions play as ruthlessly or destructively as they might have.
Still, production is always brisk, flavorful and aesthetically pleasing. Designer Enrico Job and three costumers (one for La Sophia alone) ice a Neapolitan-location cake already quite decorous with architectural and scenic splendor. Alfio Contini’s sun-struck lensing provides lyrical counterweight to the hectic narrative; ditto Italo Greco and Lucio Gregoretti’s lush score.
Giannini, reunited with the director whose 1970s vogue he rode to fame, is in deft but subdued form here. Repping the latest generation of Italo screen lovers most attractively are Gerini and Bova, though his suave ardency seems more true to the period than her unshakably modern, worldly demeanor. Pic manages a nice bow to Italian cinema’s roots when Nunziata and Federico first consummate their love, hidden by a silent film screen that holds flickering images from “Quo Vadis?”
All tech aspects are first-rate, excepting a couple of crude matte effects.