Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Avanti! (Billy Wilder, 1972)

I owe my recent viewing of Billy Wilder’s overlooked Avanti! to a perusal of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s top 100 favorite films. For whatever reason (I have yet to read a convincing one) it falls outside the bounds of the conventional Wilder canon and is rarely talked about or acknowledged. As it stands, Avanti! is a masterful evocation of time and place, an on-location shoot in Italy elevated by a lilting, melodic and romantic score that seems like something two-time Tati composer Alain Romans might have cooked up had he been under the breezy spell of the small by-the-shore town of Ischia, Italy, or perhaps Nino Rota in Amarcord mode. Grounded within this atmospheric seascape villa is the following premise: Jack Lemmon’s Wendell Ambruster, Jr. goes to retrieve the body of his dead father for a nationally televised funeral. When he meets the daughter of his father’s mistress, Ms. Piggot (Juliet Mills), things really get going, and Wilder takes great pleasure complicating the story until Lemmon simply can’t take anymore. It’s one of the better tourist comedies, not so much because Lemmon’s stiff-lipped, rude American finds it difficult to conform to the Italian rituals and customs, but because he is unwilling and ardently set on retrieving his father’s body to the exclusion of all else, and it is Mills who eases him into the charming serenity of the resort. Lemmon’s sense of urgency is combated at every turn by the leisureliness of the Italian lifestyle, and eventually he must settle into it and, naturally, fall in love with the perky Londoner. Likewise the 144-minute runtime allows the film to bask in its own grace and sweetness without any rush, and gives the audience all the time it could ever need to enjoy it.

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