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May 21, 2015

The Jester's Supper

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La cena delle beffe
Alessandro Blasetti - 1942
One 7 Movies Region 0 DVD

There is some dispute as to whether The Jester's Supper was the first or second Italian film to feature a bare-breasted actress. In any case, it was a scene that made waves in 1942, and probably would have still raised eyebrows twenty years later. Clara Calamai cemented her stardom in that brief, eighteen second moment when here blouse is torn off by Amedeo Nazzari. As it turns out in the course of the film, that scene is the cherry on top of other scenes with Calamai dressed in very low cut gown that barely cover her cleavage, as well as a diaphanous nightgown that does nothing to hide her nipples.

As for the film itself, the interest is probably more of a historical bent. The story is based on a 1909 play that takes place in 15th Century Florence. The title might seem misleading to those expecting some guy in a harlequin outfit. A feud between two rivals for the affection of a beautiful woman gets out of hand. Neri and his brother, Gabriello, toss Giannetto into the Arno River after tying him up in a sack. Neri claims Ginerva for himself. Ginerva is the subject of gossip, a commoner whose looks provided an entrance to royal society. The supper in question is hosted by Lorenzo De Medici. Giannetto tricks Neri into appearing as a madman, made worse when he beds the unsuspecting Ginverva who can't tell the difference between lovers in the dark.

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Some contemporary viewers may be put off by this combination of tragedy and sex farce, that seems closer in spirit to the theater of its 15th Century setting than an early 20th Century play. Sem Benelli's play even made it to Broadway, performed in 1919, starring John and Lionel Barrymore. A 1924 operatic version also followed, with a staging done in 1999 by Liliana Cavani.

For the more serious film scholar, this is one of the rare pre-World War II Italian films made available on home video, and with English subtitles. Alessandro Blasetti was a pioneer in Italian cinema, and this was one of his most popular films. The Jester's Supper also provides an opportunity to see Clara Calamai as a star in popular cinema, outside of her better known with Visconti, or as the murderous mother of Dario Argento's Deep Red. The other recognizable name in the cast is Valentina Cortese, eighteen at the time she made this film. Here, Cortese plays a young woman, one of Neri's casual romantic partners, who still loves Neri. Unlike her main competitor, Anna Magnani, Calamai never starred in any English language films. Even without the partial nudity, Clara Calamai reveals enough to make clear why in Italy, she was one of the biggest female stars of her time.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 21, 2015 08:27 AM