Category Archives: Academy Award Winners for Best Foreign Film

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Gotta love Sophia Loren.

This is a delightful comedy that won the Academy Award in 1964 for best foreign film. It consists of 3 vignettes all starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni and directed by the legendary Vittorio De Sica.

The first segment is entitled ‘Adelina’ and is a story about Adelina (Loren) who lives in poverty and sells cigarettes for a living. She is arrested for selling contraband products, but is released when it is found that she is expecting with the condition that six months after she delivers the baby she will be forced to serve her sentence. However, Adelina and her husband Carmine (Mastroianni) decide that the best way to avoid the sentence altogether is by keeping her continuously pregnant. Once she delivers one child she immediately gets pregnant with another, which creates overcrowding as well as an exhausted Carmine.

This segment is original and amusing throughout. Watching them trying to handle and maintain a household with such a large brood has its share of funny moments including one scene where Adelina tries to give one of her petulant children his medication. This setting vividly shows the poor side of Italian society, but unlike De Sica’s neo-realist films of the 40’s this one has a very engaging and even upbeat quality to it. The impoverished townsfolk become like a third character and their resiliency and support of one another proves to be a major plus to the story. Loren is fantastic in every scene she is in and makes this one special. Mastroianni is interesting playing against type as he is usually debonair and sophisticated, but here is simple and dominated.

The second story entitled ‘Anna’ deals with characters on the completely opposite end of the economic spectrum. Anna (Loren) is a spoiled rich woman who in an effort to alleviate her boredom with her husband who spends too much time working she has an affair with Renzo (Mastroianni). Renzo though fears that he is being used and that Anna has no intention of ever leaving her luxurious lifestyle to be with him.

All of the action takes place in a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III convertible as the two characters discuss their relationship while driving through the streets of Rome. This story is not as lively as the first and the characters aren’t as likable. However, the part where Renzo has an accident with the car and Anna’s reaction to it is quite funny.

The third and final act is entitled ‘Mara’ and deals with a prostitute named Mara (Loren) who becomes interested in Umberto (Gianni Ridolfi) a young man living next door with his Grandmother (Tina Pica) and studying to become a priest. The grandmother does not approve of Mara’s ‘profession’ and openly shuns her causing a major discord between the two, but when Umberto decide to drop out of the seminary the two work together to try and bring him back to his senses.

This story, like the first, has many amusing moments. Loren shows impeccable comic ability. I loved how the character goes from sexy seductress to a woman pleading with Umberto to go back to seminary and escape this ‘wicked world’. The shift between having Mara and the grandmother hating each other to becoming friends is equally funny. Mastroianni doesn’t have as much to do here, but still makes the most of it playing one of Mara’s customers who is just looking for a little sex, but is reluctantly thrown into the middle of the controversy.

This segment became famous at the time for a striptease that Loren does for Mastroianni. However, by today’s standards it is not much and hardly even seemed worth mentioning. I actually thought the part where Loren walks outside wearing nothing more than a towel and provocatively singing a flirtatious song to the young Umberto, who has a face that looks like it had not reached puberty, was much steamier.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 19, 1963

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Studio: Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix streaming, Amazon Instant Video

Closely Watched Trains (1966)

closely watched trains

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Boy loses his virginity.

This is an engaging, amiable Czechoslovakian import that won the Academy Award for best foreign film of 1966. The story pertains to a young man named Milos (Vaclav Neckar) who follows in his father’s footsteps and gets a job at the local railway company during World War II. He almost immediately becomes bored with it and gets preoccupied with a beautiful young train conductor named Messa (Jitka Scoffin). The two have a sexual tryst, but Milos is unable to ‘rise to the occasion’.  He becomes despondent and even tries to commit suicide, but is saved at the last minute. While he is recuperating in the hospital the Dr. informs him that he suffers from premature ejaculation.  Milos then spends the rest of the time scouring the village for some prostitutes that he can ‘practice on’ so that he can learn to control his condition and become a ‘real man’.  A subplot involves plans to blow-up a German train carrying some high level ammunition.

Despite the fact that it is very leisurely paced and everything happens at one not very exciting location I still found the film to be immensely enjoyable. I had the feeling that director Jiri Menzel spoke straight from the heart with this one. The bleakness of the characters situation and the poor, hopeless conditions of their country is vivid and yet the ingenuity and perseverance of the human spirit never fades. Anyone who has dealt with an oppressive situation will most assuredly relate. The fact that this film stays so highly amusing and touching despite the depressing elements is what makes this a winner.

In a lot of ways this was years ahead of its time. The very liberal sexual attitudes and provocative scenes were stuff not yet seen in most movies and didn’t really become the norm, even for European films, until the 70’s and 80’s. Although not extreme there is indeed some lingering eroticism and even nudity. One segment involves Milos’s very amorous co-worker Hubicka (Josef Somr) rubber stamping the naked rear of Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorska) who works as the station’s secretary. When her shocked mother finds out about this she parades her daughter all around town, exposing her rear to everyone, so that they can witness the ‘outrageous crime’ while the amused Zdenka finds it a turn-on.  There is also another scene, which another reviewer considered to be the most unique scene ever put on film that involves an old woman and a goose. I’ll agree it is very different, but I am not exactly sure what she was doing with it, or if I want to know, or if it is even legal, but it does indeed catch your attention.

Of course the drawback to this is the fact that the character’s attitudes seem far too modernistic for the era. At no time did I feel like I was really being transported back into the 1940’s.  There was also a little too much preoccupation with the sex angle and I felt there needed to be a little more balance with the actual war.

The Milos character is a bit too wide-eyed. He looks literally like a ‘deer-in-headlights’ through the entire progression of the movie. He seems overtly naïve for someone of 18. I know it was done for comical purposes, but having his mother dress him for his first day of work was going over the top. For the first half of the film he has hardly any dialogue and it is difficult for the viewer to relate to him, or get inside his head. Things do even out at the end when he ‘transforms into a man’, which I liked, but the opening half paints him too much as a caricature.

If there was one thing that really rubbed me the wrong way it would be the downbeat ending. I didn’t think it was necessary and tended to go against the film’s theme, which was human survival and coping. Still, it’s a good film with a great message. The budget was clearly very low, but it’s entertainment value high.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 18, 1966

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Jiri Menzel

Studio: Filmove

Available: VHS, DVD (The Criterion Collection)