It’s easy to be skeptical of anthologies, portmanteaus, or these kinds of thematic character pieces. However, The Gold of Naples’s structure, built out of 6 interlocking vignettes, suits the talents of Vitorrio De Sica since he’s always invested in a world of characters — emphasizing people from all walks of life — rather than a few chosen stars.
The actor-director readily provides a tableau with which to celebrate the city, and there’s no doubt a few stars stand out even as the picture is surprisingly balanced, mixing tones and subject matter one moment after another.
It opens with that charmed Italian comedian Toto as the clown prince Saviero: part Peter Sellers, part Stan Laurel. He’s slowly dying on the inside thanks to the local gangster who has all but commandeered his household on a passing invitation from the jester’s wife. It’s raged out of control.
Next, we have a portrait of a street corner pizzeria. It very well could be a dramatic scandal as a married woman is found necking with a handsome suitor before rushing off to work. The spirited beauty, Donna Sofia, as only Sophia Loren could embody her, works with her portly husband to feed the entire neighborhood, mostly on credit. Then, calamity!
Donna Sofia’s ring is gone! We know where it might be, but they go ahead and make the rounds of all their clientele. One of the digressions involves a man who’s beside himself with grief; he wants to kill himself, and they join a whole host of others looking to comfort him, raising up prayers to the Virgin Mary on his behalf. Of course, they still have their primary reason for coming.
Husband and wife throw each other glances as they pat the man’s hands and try and find a way to broach the subject. How do you ask a weeping man if he found a stray ring in his pizza? Everything is supposed to build to the scandalous reveal, but we never get that. It’s a happy-go-lucky resolution amid all the hubbub.
If the first two interludes are primarily vehicles of good-natured comedy, teasing out the absurdities of the situation, the anthology is not squeamish about taking a drastic, even daring turn toward the melancholy. It’s a funeral procession and as the little wooden casket passes by we realize this is for a child. What a horrible scenario when life is snuffed out so early and a mother is forced to bury her own child.
Watching her organize the event, it’s evident she’s a very particular woman, but not in an overly demanding way. She wants the best for her son making sure everyone is in their correct place as the Father leads them toward their destination.
The solemnity of the moment is not lost on us nor the fact that the surrounding world still operates around them, whether honking horns in the distance or a feuding couple on the second floor. But for a mother, time seems to stop still. Nothing else matters.
She calls for the sugared almonds and tosses them off the wheels into the street. It causes an ungodly ruckus from all the little boys excited to get a taste, but the mother doesn’t scold them for their indecency. There’s a sense that she relishes it because, in their youthful, unbridled energy, her boy is alive for her again. But when the almonds are gone, so is the brief moment of comfort. It’s so transient and unsatiating. There’s no way to hold back the tears. Moments later we leave her and the emotions linger.
How do you follow up this level of sorrow? De Sica takes it upon himself as he shows up onscreen as Count Prospero, a man with a very peculiar problem — it’s a kind of gambling — although we realize it’s actually playing cards with a young tyke. Perhaps this is all he can scrounge up after a less than successful career playing chance. His wife isn’t happy with his spendthrift ways; he can’t stop the habit.
Regardless, since it’s often so easy to section De Sica’s career into his work behind the camera and then his work in front of it, there’s no small pleasure in seeing him taking on the rather oddball role, which he handles with aplomb. It functions thanks to his stately features being crossed with his character’s comic inclinations. I’ve never heard of the card game Scopa before. However, the hapless count is taken to the proverbial cleaners, that much is obvious.
He moans at the kid, “Your luck is disgusting!” Things just keep on getting worse. He’s unraveling and going completely berserk as the little boy across from him with his quizzical gaze keeps on winning hand after hand. He’ll do anything to get outside and play again.
The old man is left screaming to the rooftops as he rides up in the lift in what feels like the perfect curtain on his tale. Toto and Loren are undisputed stars, but De Sica reserves a place in our memories with a larger-than-life turn.
In the next segment, it’s all about the young woman Teresa (Silvana Mangano) who is meant to have a rendezvous with a prospective husband. We get the sense that this is one of those courting rituals out of a more traditional world. If you come from upstanding families and you’re not moral profligates, you get together in wedlock. Getting to know one another comes with time. Love is a happy bonus.
Though Don Nicola has breeding and looks, Teresa is placed in the oddest and most uncomfortable of circumstances. Here we have a man marrying as an act of atonement for scorning another girl. You could build a whole narrative out of it — this poor young woman caught up in a loveless marriage. But we are given a slight reprieve as an audience, leaving Teresa where she is.
The final capstone is a welcomed piece of levity. The local medicine man provides all sorts of solutions to the local population. They’re particularly miffed with a local snob driving his fancy wheels through the narrow neighborhood streets. The fitting remedy a la the battle of Jericho involves blowing raspberries at an overbearing duke.
It’s incredulous how the tone of The Gold of Naples can change so rapidly — sometimes within an individual vignette — and yet De Sica manages to bridle it in and somehow make it palatable. Even a later project like Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, while utilizing the eminent talents of Loren and Marcello, was all comedy. There’s something almost more impressive watching the scenarios run the emotional gamut, albeit over 6 storylines instead of 3. It’s a pleasant surprise.