Last night’s movie at the San Diego Italian Film Festival proved to be surprisingly good, even though a little contrived and a lot too sentimental, a mismatched-lovers story set in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II and the run-up to the referendum in which Italians had a chance to vote on whether to restore the monarchy or declare a republic. They voted for a republic, but the vote was a good deal closer than I’d thought it was from previous sources: 12 million-something for the republic and 10 million-something for the monarchy (the Italian kings, the Savoys from Sicily, had been compromised in the minds of many Italians for their closeness to Mussolini and fascism). The film was called Edda Ciano and the Communist, and the “Edda Ciano” in the dramatis personae was indeed the daughter of Benito Mussolini and the (by then widowed) husband of Count Galeazzo Ciano. Galeazzo Ciano was executed by the Italian Fascists in 1944 after he turned against them, and in particular against the alliance with Nazi Germany which Ciano, in his pre-war post as Italy’s foreign minister, had largely been responsible for creating in the first place.
Edda escaped to Switzerland with the couple’s three children (one of whom later wrote a memoir called When Grandpa Had Daddy Shot) but was brought back to Italy after the war and interned in the town of Lipari, Sicily, where she was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for aiding Fascism. At least according to this film, however, she was freed after the July 2, 1946 referendum because the new Italian government no longer considered her a threat. In the meantime — and this is the part the filmmakers, director Graziano Diana (who originally had been scheduled to speak at the Italian Film Festival showing, but canceled when he got an opportunity to make another movie back home) and his co-writers, Stefano Marcocci and Domenico Tomassetti, invented — Edda (played in the film by Stefania Rocca) had an unlikely love affair in Lipari (where she was pretty much free to go when and where she pleased, as long as she didn’t leave town) with local Communist leader Leonida Bongiorno (Alessandro Preziosi). The filmmakers were more interested in matters of the heart than in politics — they didn’t have the characters debate their differing views of the world and the people in it — and they deliberately kept pretty sketchy just what drew these two unlikely lovers together.
They also didn’t show much campaigning on the referendum even though it seemed likely (at least to me) that the Communists would have taken an active role in bringing out the vote for the republic — but what they did do was tell a quite remarkable human story about how two people forge a connection in the unlikeliest circumstances possible. Made in 2011 and presented as a TV-movie on imdb.com (the Italian state broadcasting company RAI was one of the co-producers) — though it was shot in wide-screen (and the Italian Film Festival screwed up the presentation and showed it in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which made the people too tall and skinny and the cars too short) — Edda Ciano and the Communist is strongest showcasing Edda’s own conflict between her lover and the one thing that means more to her at the moment than he does: reuniting with her children, who were still in Switzerland. (At one point she sends him out of the country to the villa in Switzerland where they’re staying and asks him to bring back some books — and he has to perform a fast shuffle with the box containing them to make sure they’re not searched or confiscated when he returns with them.) The political conflicts are there, but they’re understated and presented simply and subtly — notably in a remarkable scene in which Edda, released from detention in Lipari, moves to Capri and invites Leonida to visit her there; he gets as far as the grounds of the mansion where she’s living, then sees one of her guests give the fascist salute and slips away, disgusted.
There are limitations to this movie, notably the rather sappy piano-and-strings music by Paolo Vivaldi (probably no relation to Antonio biologically and certainly no relation creatively) that evoked memories of a million romances on Lifetime (Charles joked that if Lifetime had made this it would have been called The Perfect Communist), but it’s beautifully filmed (for once we get a movie set in the recent past in which the colors are bright and vivid and actually contain hues other than dirty brown and dull green!) and effectively acted — Stefania Rocca is just right for the part, beautiful and alluring but no longer young (she was 40 when she made the movie — actually five years older than the real Edda Ciano was when she was interned on Lipari) and Alessandro Preziosi has that smoldering sexiness that makes Christopher Meloni so appealing and he’s also convincingly butch, a far cry from the androgyny of the two male Italian actors who ever achieved international stardom, Rudolph Valentino in the 1920’s and Marcello Mastroianni in the 1960’s. It’s also intelligently, if a bit sentimentally, written, with a bittersweet but believable ending as well as a crisis of conscience for the hero when the local Communist party wants him to run for mayor of Lipari despite the pretty large skeleton he’s just put in his own closet. (The party boss alludes to “rumors” about him — and he fires back, “Which are true!”) Edda Ciano and the Communist is a film that doesn’t quite overcome the blatant plot contrivance it’s built on, but within those limitations it’s a quite beautiful movie that avoids the twin temptations (getting either too sentimental or too preachy) that would probably have wrecked an American filmmaker attempting a similar story.