It is an especially good week for Italian film lovers with some of the most requested films from that country's greatest filmmakers and biggest stars finally getting a respectable DVD release.
The best-known title is undoubtedly 1961's "Divorce, Italian Style" (Criterion Collection, $39.95), which became the most-popular Italian film in U.S. history when released here a year later.
Originally conceived as a drama, the story of a man married to a woman with an unsightly mustache who falls in love with his 16-year-old cousin and then initiates an elaborate plot to get a divorce was reworked as a dark, delicious satire by director Pietro Germi. A huge hit in Italy, it bowled over American audiences easing into the new sophistication of the post-Eisenhower years, unaccustomed as they were to sexual frankness and taboo subjects (for the era, anyway; today it would earn a PG-13).
It helped that the middle-aged Sicilian nobleman looking to ditch his devoted but passionless mate was played by Marcello Mastroianni, in what was his introduction to mainstream American audiences. It helped too when the film was nominated for three Oscars -- best director, best actor and best screenplay, which it won in an upset.
"Divorce" has been previously available, but it now gets the full Criterion treatment; a handsome remastering and a sonic remix, plus a second disc full of the usual well-considered extras.
For some, even a fine "Divorce" could be overshadowed by the first DVD release of the omnibus "Boccaccio '70" (No Shame, $29.95). It consisted of three sexy stories by Italy's three best-known filmmakers. Luchino Visconti ("The Leopard") contributed "The Job," which had Romy Schneider playing a secretary who becomes the mistress to her aristocratic boss. Vittorio De Sica ("The Bicycle Thief") helmed "The Raffle," starring Sophia Loren as the prize in a raffle won by a timid peasant. And Federico Fellini was behind the playful "The Temptation of Doctor Antonio," about a man who becomes obsessed with a gigantic advertising billboard -- for milk, no less -- that could barely contain voluptuous Anita Ekberg.
When "Boccaccio '70" was originally released stateside, it had been shorn of a fourth segment, "Renzo & Luciana," directed by the lesser-known Mario Monicelli, who made the original "Big Deal on Madonna Street." It has been restored in this new widescreen anamorphic transfer.
No Shame can also take credit for the first decent DVD issue of De Sica's 1963 anthology comedy "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" ($19.95) pairing the by-then-hot Loren and Mastroianni in three separate stories, each set in a different city, but all, of course, concerned with amour. In the "Adelina: Naples" segment, Loren is a peasant convicted of the crime of cigarette smuggling. But Italian law provides a stay to women pregnant or caring for newborns, so she keeps Mastroianni busy. "Anna: Milan," based on a story by Alberto Moravia, has the materialistic and married Loren looking forward to a getaway with writer-lover Mastroianni but reassessing her feelings as they drive farther from town.
But it's the final segment people of a certain age remember, which has Loren playing an expensive call girl who makes her best customer Mastroianni crazy while she puts him off to comfort the celibate seminary student next door, whom she's been making even crazier. It's here Loren performed the celebrated striptease that made this film the erotic touchstone of the era -- even though she never gets further than bra and panties. No Shame's version was remastered from a well-preserved copy and looks fine, containing both the original Italian and dubbed soundtracks in mono.
One review of "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" called it the antithesis of the sanitized Doris Day "sex" comedies popular in the period, so it only seems fitting it is released on the same day as the eight-title "Doris Day Collection" (Warner, $88.92).
The best titles in the box, no contest, are 1953's "Calamity Jane," with Day in the title role of the sharp-shootin' and sharp-tongued star of the Bill Hickock (Howard Keel) Wild West show, and 1957's based-on-the-Broadway-hit "The Pajama Game" starring Day as Babe, a factory union rep who falls for the foreman, played by the late, great musical comedy star John Raitt in his sole starring movie role.
The new two-disc Special Collector's Edition "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (Paramount, $38.99) confirms my initial reaction: This adaptation of the popular young reader's books about orphaned children in Victorian England and their tragicomic travails with sinister fortune-hunting relative Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) was entertaining, if not inspired. Meryl Streep is terrific as the short-sighted aunt, and Jude Law makes a fine narrator, but there's little of the magic that was finally bottled in the last Harry Potter film.
-- Terry Lawson,
Knight Ridder Newspapers