WIDE BLUE ROAD, THE (Grande strada azzurra, La)

(director/writer: Gillo Pontecorvo; screenwriter: Franco Solinas/Ennio De Concini/based on the novel “Squarcio” by Franco Solinas; cinematographer: Mario Montuori; editor: Eraldo Da Roma; music: Carlo Franci; cast: Yves Montand (Squarciò), Alida Valli (Rosetta), Francisco Rabal (Salvatore), Umberto Spadaro (Gaspare Puggioni, 1st Coast Guard First Officer), Giancarlo Soblone (Tonino), Ronaldo Bonacchi (Bore), Terence Hill (Renato), Peter Carsten (First Officer Riva), Frederica Ranchi (Diana); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Maleno Malenotti; Milestone Film; 1957/West Germany/Italy-in Italian with English subtitles)

“An enjoyable melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo (“The Battle of Algiers-1965“/”Burn!“-1969) was born in 1919 into a large, wealthy, industrialist Jewish family, and in 1941 joined the Communist Party. The Wide Blue Road was his first feature, and he was influenced by the neo-realism of De Sica and Rossellini. It’s a stirring and lushly picturesque communist melodrama that brings home the political message that to counter capitalist exploitation the workers must unite and share the profits. Yves Montand, born in 1921 and died in 1991, gives an energetic and compelling starring performance. The actor’s anti-Fascist family fled Italy when Mussolini came to power and he was raised in France, in conditions of poverty. The elementary school drop-out started out as a singer and he was given his first film role in an Edith Piaf movie, at her request. In 1953, he starred in Clouzot’s Wages of Fear and the handsome actor emerged as a genuine movie star.

“Wide” made its United States theatrical premiere in June 2001 in a restored print, due to the efforts of Jonathan Demme and Dustin Hoffman. I saw the DVD version, which was a well-produced product. It might not be a great classic, but it’s a beautiful work that deserved to be restored and released so a wider than European audience can get a chance to see for themselves the quality of this 1950s styled drama. It took the end of the Cold War to finally bring this baby across the ocean.

The setting is an impoverished fishing village off the Dalmatian coast. The fishermen who obey the law and use nets are starving, only able to eek out enough to live day to day. Squarciò (Montand) is a contented family man with a loving wife Rosetta and two young boys who look up to him and a sweet 16-year-old girl Diana who respects him. He’s a wise guy who takes Tonino and his younger brother Bore out dynamite fishing in order to give his family more bread than the other locals. He rationalizes his decision by going far away from the island so as not to interfere with the other fishermen, and they therefore don’t rat him out to the Coast Guard even though they disapprove. By dynamiting, Squarciò is able to bring in a bigger catch than the others and also a more marketable one. The fishermen seem to be able to only get sardines and when they sell them are exploited by getting an unfair price from the greedy wholesaler Natale, who is the only one on the island with a refrigerator. The men are waiting for a Co-op to come to the island and to also get their own refrigerator. This will put an end to the unfair prices they are getting for their toils.

Squarciò’s homemade bombs are dangerous to both him and the sea ecology. His concerned wife pleads with him to go back to using the nets, as she’d rather not take such risks to get more material comforts. But he is obsessed with giving his family a more comfortable life. His one time close friend Gaspare has become a first officer in the Coast Guard and is frustrated that he can’t catch Squarciò, as the law states the culprit must be caught in the act. Gaspare eventually lays a trap for his old friend where he stores the dynamite but a quarry worker Domenico, who is from the mainland, instead picks up the dynamite and when chased by Gaspare the bomb accidently goes off killing him. The honest worker Domenico has just been fired from the quarry and he only stole because he wanted to make some extra money for his upcoming marriage to Diana. This incident greatly grieves Gaspare and he resigns from the Coast Guard and seeks employment in the mainland.

A new first officer, Riva, who is not from the area and has brought with him a faster Coast Guard motorboat, hounds Squarciò and forces him to stop dynamiting. But Squarciò buys a new motor through the payment plan that is faster than the Coast Guard’s and is once again dynamite fishing in order to keep his family from falling back to poverty. Riva figures out where Squarciò is fishing and is about to trap him, but the wily fisherman sinks the boat to the bottom of the sea and plans to retrieve it later. The film works its way to a weepy ending that underscores Pontecorvo’s sympathies for all of the poor fishermen and their struggles to exist. Squarciò is shown to be a decent guy but is forced to break the law to fulfill his dreams, and is now desperate because he’s plagued by debts and of making a questionable choice to side with Natale over the Co-op.

The theme revolves around how hard life is and how one must learn to survive by any means. The two opposing ways for the locals are shown through the ongoing rivalry between the childhood friends and the island’s two best fishermen Squarciò and Salvatore (Francisco Rabal, the Spanish actor). Squarciò’s a loner and risk taker while Salvatore’s way is working as part of a team and not making waves. There’s also a subplot woven in about Salvatore’s 19-year-old son Renato asking Diana to marry him, and how this also conflicts both families. The brothers are very protective of Diana, and will fight anyone who tries any hanky-panky.

The only fault in this otherwise finely textured humanistic drama was that it became too predictable and the dues that Squarciò has to pay for his criminal deeds seem a hefty price ever since we see how good a person he really is and how he’s really a victim of an unfair materialistic system. The message was fine, but it seemed overloaded with too many set plot manipulations. It was also too incredible to picture so much harmony among the fishermen, as they all acted on cue to cooperate and ignore their personal concerns and not to look out only for Number One. Ummm! It reeked of communist utopia, which in reality doesn’t seem to work as well in real life as it does in leftist films. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable melodrama if you let some of the trite dialogue slide and take the polemics with a grain of salt, and instead tune into Yves Montand’s complex role as a loving family man and desperate fisherman whose strength lies in his independent spirit and big heart.

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