Saturday, November 19, 2011

#350: Seduced and Abandoned

(Pietro Germi, 1964)

Seduced and Abandoned is Germi's follow-up to his big hit Divorce, Italian Style. That film's sly satire has been quadrupled here, and is now boiling over into a rage - it's hard to think of many comedies that have this much contempt for their characters and the universe they inhabit. Maybe that's why I enjoyed the movie so much.

The film revolves around a sexual encounter between a man and the underage sister of his fiancee, whom he impregnates. When the father finds out what happened, rather than turn the man in to the police for statutory rape, he expends all of his energy struggling to get them married and keep his family's honor intact. Despite being only 16, the sister is seen as a "slut" or "whore" - at one point, someone explains that "It is a man's right to ask, a woman's duty to refuse." In fact, even the man who seduced her refuses to marry her because she is not a virgin.

The story would be tragic if the film didn't take this archaic and barbaric mindset to its logical extreme, turning the situation into high farce that takes a dark path through statutory rape, suicide, kidnapping, and attempted murder. I've always felt satire is more effective at exposing hypocrisy than drama - which can get preachy very, very fast - and this film is a perfect example of why. The final shot of the gravestone in a drama would have been deemed too far over the top, but here it's a cherry on top of an arsenic sundae.

Like Mafioso, another early 60s film that lampooned Sicilian living as out of step with modern society, Seduced and Abandoned plays unspoken codes of conduct for laughs. Yet Mafioso had an enormous amount of sympathy for its main character - the film could easily be regarded as one of the core humanist comedies of Italian cinema - while Seduced and Abandoned depicts its protagonists (or maybe antagonists) as willing participants in their society's unjust, misogynistic system. Ironically, despite the somewhat upbeat hope for humanity to triumph in Mafioso and the dark cycle of Seduced and Abandoned, it's the latter film that comes off lighter, though both are equally entertaining.

I've done a lot of thinking about comedy, and one really difficult thing about making a compelling and relevant comedy in modern America is that most of the taboos that can be depicted in a light-hearted fashion have been torn down. Movies like The Miracle of Morgan Creek or even The Graduate don't have the same bite they once did (though both are still great movies), and today all we're left with are decidedly unfunny taboos like rape and incest and overplayed semi-taboos like homosexuality and blasphemy and holdovers from our childhoods like saying bad words and farting. It makes broad comedies of this nature much more difficult to pull off, and it's one reason why satire is somewhat marginalized in our culture. Germi's work here is a prime example of the pleasure that can be drawn from the style.

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