[Originally published in The Weekly, October 12, 1977]
“The Pizza Triangle opens with an all-male reenactment of a crime of passion before a judge and jury. Everything else but the final scene is flashback, a reconstruction of the cockeyed lovelife of a bungling leftist, a streetwalker, and the protestor’s best buddy, a pizza chef. The prostitute first sees the protestor while she is riding in a delirious, fluorescently colorful circle above a makeshift amusement park; he is lying on some rubble. She disembarks, walks over to him, and kisses him back to life. They become a couple. She meets the buddy. Everyone is friends for a while. Then she and the buddy make love. Alliances form, shift, realign. Everyone gets older. The three inadvertently meet again after time has passed and the girl and buddy have married. There is a clumsy fight, fully as graceless and absurd as—and much more moving than—its comic reenactment; the original is funny, too, but the woman ends up dead.”
That’s from a review I wrote six-and-a-half years ago. You’re reading it now because Ettore Scola, the director of that idiosyncratic 1970 comedy, is the guy who made We All Loved Each Other So Much, and because I was struck, upon rereading the piece, how true it also seems of the newer film. Make it a girl and three men instead of two, expand the time frame by a couple decades, change the lethal reunion into a self-designated “ambiguous conclusion” wherein three old friends discover a fourth is not what he pretended to be, and you have much the same film, in style, essential scenario, and sadly comic spirit.
The characters have been rearranged a bit. The three men, partisan comrades in the last days of the Second World War, branch out into different walks of life once the Nazis have been sent packing. The pizza chef here becomes a bedpan orderly, Antonio (Nino Manfredi), with the former character’s reluctant rakishness being redistributed to his lawyer friend Gianni (Vittorio Gassman). Gianni is supposed to be one of the men who will redeem Italy for “the people,” but every line of his face and clotheshorse form ordains him for success: money, women, social position, and political power have such a way of falling in his lap, it would take hard work and iron will not to become an exploiter.
Nicola (Stefano Satta Flores), on the other hand, is such a noisy nonstop reformer that he soon polemicizes his way out of a provincial teaching job and, choosing ideals over family, becomes an impecunious leftwing film critic living and working out of the proverbial garret.
Scola follows these men’s mostly separate lives for nearly thirty years—not so much follows, really, as checks in at key, often low-key, moments in their careers. What links them, apart from their wartime friendship and subsequent participation in the social history of their nation, is a girl, Luciana (Stefania Sandrelli), a smalltown actress who descends from hometown stardom as Kathy in Our Town to bit parts in some of the great Italian films of the turn of the Sixties, and finally to lower-class wife-and-motherhood.
Her introduction is typical of Scola’s cheeky-tender comic style: she has been hospitalized because she collapsed from hunger (she’d rather spend her meager monies on plays than food), and Antonio first sees her funkily etherealized through the steam rising from a cauldron of pasta he’s wheeling round the ward. They become friends (Antonio falls instantly in love, but whether the relationship is consummated is highly doubtful). She takes him to Strange Interlude and he wonders why the other actors don’t hear the spotlighted soliloquies; after all, he can hear them at the back of the theater!
Smooth Gianni Perego, who once spoke German to talk his way out of a Nazi ambush, wouldn’t have any trouble understanding—and when he happens onto Antonio and Luciana, barely a moment passes before he and Luciana are having a strange interlude of their own while the exuberant cacophony of a proletarian beanery dims into silence around them.
Scola indulges in such stylization to a fare-thee-well. Indeed, although We All Loved Each Other So Much registers most directly through the rich corporeality of its cast, like so many uncomplicatedly “earthy” Italian comedies, it’s also an encyclopedic exercise in style. It’s no accident that Our Town and Strange Interlude are the plays invoked early in the film: the one play opening the way to the stylization of extreme spareness in dramatic settings (when Gianni and Luciana go dancing, we see only their lighted figures in one sector of the screen, a lighted, eerily suspended bandstand in another, and absolute blackness elsewhere); the other starkly interrupting the flow of normal behavioral reality in the interests of deeper psychological revelation. When the reluctant lovers go to confess themselves to Antonio, the soundtrack picks up a magnified heartbeat in anticipation of his succumbing briefly to “cardiovascular arrhythmia,” and the just-slightly-excessive thunder and lightning raging offscreen evokes a whole tradition of melodramatic expressiveness.
Scola uses theatrical experiments and conventions as referents early in the film, but the cinema soon takes over. The film is dedicated to the late Vittorio DeSica, whose neorealist Bicycle Thieves is explicitly invoked as a paradigm of socially conscious film style from an earlier generation (and who is resurrected amid the present cast via footage of a personal appearance not long before his death); Scola shot half the film—carrying the dramatis personae into the mid-Fifties—in black and white. Aldo Fabrizi, the Resistance priest in Rossellini’s Open City, appears, grotesquely bloated by age, as a boorish scoundrel who has got rich building “utopian” developments to house the poor. Luciana and Antonio play a nocturnal scene by a Roman fountain just after Nicola has acted out the Odessa steps sequence from Potemkin nearby, and are briefly reunited years later near a more spectacular fountain as Federico Fellini (played by the man himself) shoots the famous scene in La Dolce Vita. And Gianni’s dimwitted wife-by-expediency (Giovanna Ralli), desperate to improve her mind and body to be worthy of him (she idolizes him inside a Citizen Kane snow globe and dutifully reads a copy of The Grapes of Wrath—decorated with a still from the John Ford film), ends up a certified Antonioni heroine, decorating her walls with empty frames and confiding her deepest yearnings by way of a tape recorder.
None of this is decoration, or diversion for film buffs: the very structure of Scola’s movie, fragmented yet scrupulously cohesive, tends to define his characters in terms of figures of style. The old contractor who always celebrated his new excavations by having a roast hog swung toward the banquet site by crane, ends by being transported from his mansion to swimming pool in the same fashion. And the women who touch Gianni’s life share a predilection for romantic suicide attempts (one dramatic but unsuccessful, the other ambiguous but successful) that suggests some kind of formal destiny hovering over these people’s lives.
It’s an ambitious film, and not—at first glance, anyway—entirely successful. The people so likably and often eloquently incarnated by Sandrelli, Satta Flores, and Manfredi and Gassman especially, become important enough to us that we wish for more information about them, more elaboration, simply more time in their company than the director’s large-scale design allows for. The film is long, wittily detailed, and rarely uninteresting, but we watch it waiting for a crystallization, a payoff that never really comes.
Yet this, clearly, is the way Scola wanted it. The effect validates Gianni’s quiet, bitter denunciation of himself and the others who loved each other so much: “Our generation is a total failure…. The future passed us by without us knowing it.” Gianni, the failed idealist, was the greatest romantic of them all. But Nicola, the faithful activist whose activism never got him or his cause anywhere, also speaks an appropriate vindication of Scola’s methodology: “Maybe instead of chasing happiness, it’s better to make pleasant memories for the future,” Then the chair he’s been sitting on splits and drops him to the floor. Uh, yes, he insists, it was a gag; he planned it that way.
Copyright © 1977 by Richard T. Jameson