“The unmistakable smell of cat piss!”
Captain Fausto Consolo, who lost a hand and his eyesight in a military accident, is ferociously bitter and wedded to a posture of self-sufficiency. It isn’t cats to which his compensatory nose is especially sensitive. It’s women. But his empty flirtatiousness with silly young things is calculated to rebuff Sara (Agostina Belli, wonderful), who truly loves him and whose potential sacrifice of herself in caring for him he finds intolerable. Meanwhile, he is planning his suicide.
The narrative finds Fausto journeying from Turin to Naples accompanied by the young soldier, Giovanni, who has been assigned to him. Misanthropic, Fausto abuses the boy, calling him Ciccio. The boy is in fact fit, not fat, but Fausto is given to treating people like dirt. When he decks Giovanni, intending his fist for somebody else’s face, the boy keeps mum about the mistake even as Fausto boasts about the blow. Fausto says to a family relation, a priest, that if he could see he would see only desert and stone “because I am stone.” He doesn’t remain that way.
From Giovanni Arpino’s autobiographical story, “Il buio e il mare,” Dino Risi has made his finest film, one bursting with human activity and poignant depth. Risi’s rudimentary skills are in this instance thoroughly engaged and brightly, sharply applied. Risi won the David di Donatello Award as best director, and Profumo di donna won France’s César as best foreign-language film.
But the film’s finest asset is Vittorio Gassman’s tremendous performance as Fausto. Rather than swamping the role in self-pity, as Al Pacino would in Martin Brest’s flat, hollow, manipulative Hollywood remake (1992), Gassman adventurously explores Fausto’s convoluted nature and creates a character. He won three major best actor prizes, including at Cannes.
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