‘Wondrous Boccaccio’: Film Review

Wondrous Boccaccio Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Teodora Film

Wondrous Boccaccio Still - H 2015

A softened classic, but beautiful to behold

Love triumphs over death in Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s new version of Boccaccio’s "Decameron"

Following their innovative docu-drama Caesar Must Die, which won the Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlinale, it’s back to literary adaptation for veteran auteurs Paolo and Vittorio Taviani in Wondrous Boccaccio (Maraviglioso Boccaccio). Freely based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s schoolroom classic The Decameron, its clean-cut young cast and pro-life message come across as too chirpy and upbeat to seriously challenge Pier Paolo Pasolini’s lusty, bawdy, scatological version of 1971. The new film is just the opposite: pure cerebral yearning for love and the beauty of life in the midst of death, overlaid by an awkward chasteness even in the bed chamber. Inoffensive for family viewing, this version can boast gorgeous locations and a cast of attractive young Italian all-stars from Riccardo Scamarcio and Kim Rossi Stuart to Jasmine Trinca, Vittoria Puccini and Carolina Crescentini.

Boccaccio’s hundred-tale medieval novel was probably the model for Chaucer, who not long afterwards wrote The Canterbury Tales about a group of pilgrims telling each other stories. Here the premise is as gripping as a horror film: in 1348, the Black Death is raging in Florence, and ten young people decide to take a break from the nightmare by secluding themselves in a country villa, where they tell each other stories for ten days.

The early scenes in Florence have a startling freshness in the finest Taviani style. A young man covered with red blotches throws himself off an ornate tower.  People scurry through the streets pressing flowers to their faces to ward off the stench of decomposing bodies. Workmen load corpses on carts and bury them in mass graves. The starkly simple shots perfectly convey the epidemic’s gruesome inevitability.

A constant in the work of the directors, who are now in their 80s, is their belief in ensemble acting to express collective thinking and action. Boccaccio would seem to offer a perfect set-up in this regard.

Seven young women similar in age, station and looks meet inside a church to plan their escape to the country. They wear identical gowns which differ only in color, a scenic touch, but the downside is that the girls (all played by non-pros) are practically indistinguishable. They speak and act as a group more than as individuals, and the acting has an unnatural theatricality that further distances them from the audience. A modern touch is that these are take-charge young ladies, and they are the ones who invite three of their boyfriends to accompany them to the plague-free retreat.

One by one, the ten take turns as narrators telling stories about love.

The first and last of the five stories are the most original and enjoyable. Both stress the importance of faithfulness. Catalina (Puccini) is at death’s door.  Her mother-in-law won’t let her young husband (Flavio Parenti) even hold her hand out of fear of contamination, and when she dies, they leave her body in the family crypt. Only a secret paramour (Scamarcio) follows her, inconsolable until he slips into the tomb and discovers her heart is still beating. 

A little less macabre, but with quite a nauseating turning point, is the story of the faithful falconer Federico (Josafat Vagni), who loses his fortune while pining away for the married Giovanna (Trinca.) When she becomes a widow he sees his chance, but by then he’s too poor even to offer her a meal.

One begins to wonder if there is really much crossover between the Tavianis and Boccaccio in the story of another lovely young widow (Kasia Smutniak) whose doting father Duke Tancredi (Lello Arena) stumbles upon her in bed with his favorite sculptor (Davide Rondino). Never mind animal magnetism; the central sex scene is so chastely, tastefully done in long shot, it almost isn’t there, draining the story of its tragedy.

Like eroticism, humor is not the directors’ forte. Kim Rossi Stuart does a nice, unexpected turn as a simpleton who finds himself the butt of a practical joke.  He works as a background painter in an artist’s studio. Two malicious colleagues trick him into believing he’s invisible, with results that might be funny to four-year-olds. Even the narrator doesn’t know how to end this one.

The next attempt seems to have wandered in out of an Italian sex comedy from the Sixties, without the spice. Two little girls are sent to a convent to become nuns. As grownups, the beautiful blonde Isabetta (Crescentini) is extremely unhappy until she entices a man into her bed one night, unaware that the other girl, now the prissy convent abbess (comedienne Paola Cortellesi), is on to her. As a satire on the Catholic Church, it feels a bit out of date.

In the interludes between stories, the young people make bread, swim in a lake and jump around in the rain to reaffirm their love of life. Shot in a series of castles, towers and medieval ruins in Tuscany and Lazio, the film has a beautiful stripped-down look and this visual realism goes a long way in anchoring the story. Cinematography by Simone Zampagni, who also shot Caesar Must Die, makes a style statement with its clear simplicity, while Lina Nerli Taviani’s graceful costumes seem inspired by a Giotto fresco.

Production companies: Stemal Entertainment, Cinemaundici, Barbary Film in association with Rai Cinema

Cast: Lello Arena, Paola Cortellesi, Carolina Crescentini, Flavio parenti, Vittoria Puccini, Michele Riondino, Kim Rossi Stuart, Riccardo Scamarcio, Kasia Smutniak

Directors, Screenwriters: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Tavianibased on The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
Producers: Luigi Musini, Donatella Palermo
Executive producer: Donatalla Palermo
Director of photography: Simone Zampagni

Production designer: Emita Frigato
Costume designer: Lina Nerli Taviani
Editor: Roberto Perpignani
Music: Giuliano Taviani, Carmelo Travia
Casting:  Francesco Vedovati
Sales: MK2

No rating, 120 minutes