The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Written and directed by Ermanno Olmi, Lunga vita alla signora is Italy’s most brilliant film comedy. The “lady” in question, decrepit though still holding on, represents capitalism and wealth. She is her own guest of honor at an elaborate formal dinner/business celebration. Closed-circuit television sets are rolled down the in-between path of the U-shaped dining table to broadcast record high profits.
Her Ladyship wears a veil because, if ever breathed on directly or exposed to too much light, she would disintegrate. She doesn’t attend the opera, because culture might kill her, but she espies distant dinner guests through opera glasses from underneath her veil. Infantile, her Ladyship drinks wine through a straw.
Yet she is not the protagonist of Olmi’s intricately edited, combustibly funny satire. Boys and girls from a cooking school who have been brought in to serve the wine and dinner are the focus. (Cooked by the lady’s own chef and staff, the unusual meal begins with frogs and reaches a climax with an unidentifiable sea-beast—those familiar with Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita, 1959, will savor the joke—whose skeleton, when it is ceremoniously carted away, is picked-clean and bone-dry.) A flashback-insert shows the working-class youths’ instruction and preparation: Don’t turn around suddenly. Don’t look bored, etc. A flashback is inserted inside the flashback, showing one of the boys being similarly instructed years ago in church: “Beware of impure thoughts!” Libenzio’s “career path” has been this: church; school; job. This path of obedience reflects the patriarchal structure that capitalism now dictates more essentially than the Church.
Poignantly, Libenzio and his truck-driver father steal a private moment outside the mansion. After dinner, a guest tries to impress the waiter sexually, but, come dawn, Libenzio flees the maze of Her Ladyship’s domain.
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