Comedy, Drama, History, Romance

The Jester’s Supper (1942)

Comments Off on The Jester’s Supper (1942) 25 August 2015

The Jester's Supper1

Studio: One 7 Movies

Theatrical Release (Italy): February 9, 1942

DVD Release: May 12, 2015

Rating: Not Rated

Directed by Alessandro Blassetti

Review by Tim Bodzioney

The Jester’s Supper (La cena della beffa), from 1942, is a fascinating movie. The film takes place in Florence during the reign of Lorenzo de’ Medici in the late 15th century. The Chiaramontesi brothers, Neri (Amedeo Nazzari) and Gabriello (Alfredo Varelli), arrogantly rule the streets, terrorizing citizens like modern day gangsters.

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The poetic and cowardly Giannetto (Osvaldo Valenti), a victim of the brothers’ cruel pranks since childhood, has fallen in love with Neri’s mistress and one time servant, Ginevra (Clara Calamai). Giannetto, after being injured and humiliated by the brothers in front of Ginevra decides to take revenge.

Giannetto holds a ‘peace’ dinner with the brothers with the help of a town elder. When Gabriello (the younger brother) is called out of town, the dull-witted Neri is tricked into wearing armor and marauding through town wielding a weapon leading the townspeople to believe he is mad.

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While Neri is trapped in a bell tower overnight, Giannetto disguises himself as Neri and sleeps with Ginevra. It is here that the movie shifts gears from the near farcical to tragic. While in captivity the weight of the brother’s frat boy like pranks become much heavier as Neri is forced to confront his victims. Neri’s blind desire for revenge against Giannetto ends operatically with murder and madness.

Produced during Mussolini’s fascist regime, when all film production had to be government approved, it’s the kind of movie that had I encountered it as a kid on the late show I would have wondered, was this a ‘real’ movie or did I dream it? What I mean by a ‘real’ movie is that it looks like a studio movie and is stylishly directed by Alessandro Blassetti and elegantly shot by Mario Craveri. It could be a Warner Bros. Errol Flynn vehicle directed by Michael Curtiz and shot by Sol Polito. But the script is something else.

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The Jester’s Supper is based on a play by Sem Benelli with the script co-written by Blassetti and Renato Castellani (1954’s Romeo and Juliet, Marriage Italian Style, and Ghosts, Italian Style). It’s as if they took the Hollywood costume drama/swashbuckler and turned it inside out.  The sex is obvious and the language much saltier than Hollywood or British films of the era.

None of the three lead characters is likable. Neri is selfish, dumb, and brutish. Giannetto is weak, conniving and un-heroic.   Ginvera is amoral and mercenary, a prostitute who aligns herself with whomever is providing the best deal. Neri has a chance at redemption after spending a chaste evening with one of his victims, the virginal Lisabetta (Valentina Cortese in an early role), but charges forward bent on avenging Gianetto’s insult to his ego. Giannetto could stop the game before it reaches its tragic climax, but is too ineffectual to do so. And Ginvera’s blatant and callous gold-digging is what sets the tragedy into action.

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Imagine these roles filled by Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, and Olivia de Havilland? Not that the Hollywood model is better. In fact this film is refreshing in the way that Sergio Leone’s westerns turned that genre on its ear. And like later generations of Italian filmmakers cross breeding genres with unexpected and sometimes exciting results, Blassetti seems to be crossing the swashbuckler with film noir and the results are very interesting.

Blassetti also seems to be injecting a subtle political statement usually not found in American movies. By dressing The Jester’s Supper up as a costume drama set so far in the past I wonder if Blassetti isn’t commenting on current European politics? Neri is by far the most charismatic character in the film. The aristocrats put up with his thuggish behavior in order to get their dirty work done. The ruling class is unconcerned about how Neri’s ego-driven actions affect the common people. It’s only when Neri’s actions conflict with the desires of the aristocratic Giannetto that Neri’s reckless behavior becomes a problem. And by this point Neri is uncontrollable — much like Hitler and Mussolini. That’s a pretty subversive theme for a movie produced under a fascist government.

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Coincidentally, The Jester’s Supper star Amedeo Nazzari is sometimes referred to as the Italian Errol Flynn. From this movie, I can see why this comparison is made, though physically he’s closer to a middle-aged John Wayne. Nazzari was considered to be one of Italy’s biggest stars of the era and enjoyed a long career, but today is best remembered as the movie star in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.

There’s a lot of interesting history surrounding The Jester’s Supper. In the liner notes on the DVD cover, Blassetti is called ‘the John Ford of Italian Cinema.’ Blassetti is considered to be a forerunner of Italian neo-realism (1860) and was an instrumental force in the in the late 1930’s of the construction of Cinecitta (where The Jester’s Supper was filmed). Blassetti is also credited with being an early supporter of film preservation. In notes for a program of Blassetti films screened at MoMA in 2010, Charles Silver speculates that his association with Mussolini and fascism harmed Blassetti’s reputation.

I’m not sure why he isn’t better known in the United States today, because he does seem to be a key figure of late silent and sound Italian cinema, but I’m certain it’s not for the reason Silver states for a couple of reasons. The first is that Blassetti continued to work in features and television until the early 1980’s when Blassetti himself was in his early 80’s. Not only did Blassetti continue working after the war, he collaborated several times with noted left-wing artists such as Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Cesare Zavattini. He directed several of Italy’s biggest post-war stars, including Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Marcello Mastroianni. Blassetti was clearly not an Italian Edgar G. Ulmer toiling away in obscurity. In 1967 Blassetti served as the President of the jury of the Cannes Film Festival—hardly a right-wing institution! Contrast Blassetti’s fate with that of actor Osvaldo Valenti (Giannetto). Valenti who along with his pregnant lover, the actress Luisa Ferida (Fiammetta in The Jester’s Supper), was gunned down in the streets by left-wing partisans at the end of WWll due to their fascist ties. Blassetti died at the age of 86 in 1987. The second reason is the subversive subtext of The Jester’s Supper written about above. I would be curious to see more of Blassetti’s films to see if such themes exist in other movies.

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I’m guessing the obscurity of Blassetti’s reputation is due the lack of access outside of Italy to the bulk of his work. Certainly any film Blassetti made before the end of the war wasn’t shown in the US. This, coupled with the fact that Blassetti worked in genres today considered unfashionable, unlike horror and giallo director Mario Bava who is better known now than in his lifetime.

The Jester’s Supper also contains what it considered to be the first nude scene in mainstream Italian film by star Clara Calamai, who later appeared in Visconti’s Italian version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione and still later in Argento’s Deep Red.

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The Jester’s Supper comes to DVD from One 7 Movies, a small company specializing in exploitation films from all over the world. The Jester’s Supper source looks like a pretty good print transferred to tape. The print is somewhat battered at times, and there has been no cleaning up of picture or audio. With the exception of shots (more noticeable on smaller screens) where the whites are blown out it looks pretty good, especially for such an obscure title.

The Jester’s Supper was a major surprise. I highly recommend it. I certainly won’t pass up a chance in the future to see any films directed by Blassetti or those that feature any of the film’s cast.

 

Rating: ★★★★★

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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