Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Priest’s Wife (1970)

          A dreary dramedy about a woman who tries to persuade a priest to leave the church so they can marry, The Priest’s Wife is undoubtedly more palatable in its original, Italian-language version. As released in the U.S., it’s dubbed into English, but it appears that producer Carlo Ponti—husband of leading lady Sophia Loren—had the actors mouth English-language takes to ensure a useable international cut. This has the effect of making The Priest’s Wife slicker than the average Italian film repackaged for stateside consumption, but glossy presentation can’t compensate for substandard narrative content. Among other problems, The Priest’s Wife moves with such leaden pacing and unearned gravitas that it’s as if the filmmakers thought they were the first people to depict a man of the cloth experiencing forbidden love. Worse, the movie never really goes anywhere, because nearly all of the screen time is consumed with repetitive scenes of the priest negotiating with his superiors while Loren’s character entreats him to pick up the pace. So, even though The Priest’s Wife is basically humane and sincere, it’s so thin as to barely exist.
          The movie starts off fairly well, with Valeria (Loren) instigating a car chase with her no-good boyfriend, whom she has just discovered is married to another woman. Valeria runs the guy off the road, bashes his car to bits, and then beats him about the head and body for good measure. After this effective introduction to a strong woman who won’t let a man rule her life, however, the movie does an about-face by showing Valeria contemplating suicide. She calls a suicide-prevention hotline and speaks with Don Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), who offers life-affirming counsel. Ignoring his words, Valeria overdoes on pills but fails to kill herself. Upon recovery from her near-death experience, Valeria reaches out to Don Mario because she was infatuated by his voice on the phone—only to discover he’s a priest and therefore unavailable.
          None of this quite works. Valeria seems like she has multiple personalities because she’s a different woman in every scene, Don Mario’s interest in Valeria seems only to manifest once he realizes she’s voluptuous, and it’s unclear why Valeria was so impressed by someone who failed to do the one thing she asked of him. Beyond the logic problems, the picture gets stuck in a groove for most of its running time—The Priest’s Wife features a long series of bland courtship scenes, which are filled with play-acting (Don Mario tells people that Valeria is his sister) and slapstick. Yawn. That said, The Priest’s Wife has fine production values, and the Loren-Mastroianni duo is beloved by many. (The actors made nearly a dozen films together.) Beside fans of the stars, however, it’s tough to envision anyone succumbing to this movie’s meager charms.

The Priest’s Wife: FUNKY

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