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One of the more obscure movies in the colorful but uneven filmography of Sophia Loren, Questi Fantasmi was released in 1967 and came at a time in the actress's career when her star status was no longer a guarantee of commercial or critical success. A light comedy filmed on location in Rome, Questi Fantasmi was retitled Ghosts - Italian Style for the American market, an attempt to cash in on a previous Loren success, Marriage Italian-Style (1964), for which the actress received a Best Actress Oscar® nomination. But the film, produced by Sophia's husband producer Carlo Ponti, quickly faded from view and, in all fairness, hadn't fared well in Italy either. It was just the beginning of a long and undistinguished phase for Loren marked by such lackluster films as Sunflower (1970), The Priest's Wife (1971), Lady Liberty (1971) and the 1972 box office disaster, Man of La Mancha, based on the smash Broadway musical.
Written and originally produced for the stage by Eduardo De Filippo, Ghosts - Italian Style had already been filmed once (unsuccessfully) in 1954 with Maria Frau and Renato Rascel in the leads. Under the opening title sequence of director Renato Castellani's remake, the story of an optimistic newlywed couple is played out in stills as they progress from their marriage vows to the harsh reality of unemployment and grinding poverty in the big city. In desperation, Maria (Loren) appeals for financial help from Alfredo (Mario Adorf), a former lover who currently runs the Our Souls in Purgatory orphanage. Maria's husband Pasquale (Vittorio Gassman), meanwhile, has an inexplicable turn of good luck. He is offered - rent free - a 17th century castle. In fact, the owner even agrees to pay him to move in and fix it up. Of course, there is a catch. Pasquale must agree to a five year lease and an even stranger request: he must make an appearance twice daily on the 34 balconies of the sprawling mansion to prove that the place is inhabited. The rumor, of course, is that the palace is haunted and carries a curse. The former owner, a duke, hung himself after murdering his lover, a girl from the neighboring convent. Naturally, the palace's dark history comes into play once Pasquale and Maria move into their new residence with the idea of renting out rooms to struggling opera singers.
Despite the supernatural appeal of the title, this is not a comedy in the style of The Ghost Breakers (1940). Instead, Ghosts - Italian Style is a continental boudoir farce in which Sophia manipulates two hapless and ineffectual men to her advantage. One running joke has Pasquale believing that Alfredo, whom he first encounters hiding in a closet, is the ghost of the infamous duke. Another plot twist is introduced with the couple's first boarder, a "singer" named Sayonara (Margaret Lee) who is really a hooker. In due time, Maria begins to suspect that Pasquale is Sayonara's pimp. Yes, it's that kind of movie. The broad theatrical style in which it's played is better suited for the stage than the screen and the fact that the film was shot simultaneously in Italian and English is a liability, not an asset. The English version, which TCM is showing, does feature Loren and Gassman voicing their own lines but the rest of the Italian cast are dubbed which injects an awkward and unnatural rhythm into the proceedings that never sounds quite right.
There are some compensations. Loren looks gorgeous despite the fact that she was just recovering from a second miscarriage when filming began. The set design is striking, the music score by Luis Enriquez Bacalov is appropriately playful and there is a closing joke in which we finally see a real ghost - Marcello Mastroianni in a cameo as a decapitated officer, carrying his own head! Ghosts - Italian Style also reunites Loren with Vittorio Gassman, one of Italy's biggest stars, for the first time since their 1951 film Anna when Sophia was still a bit player.
When Ghosts - Italian Style opened in Italy, most critics unfavorably compared it to De Filippo's successful stage play. Gian Luigi Rondi wrote in Il Tempo: "That which in the text was deliberately left unspoken, is spoken, what was spoken, is shouted, and with the intent of making the plot more colorful, Castellani has actually painted it all in strong colors, mixing drama with hearty laughter, the tug of melodrama with puppet theatre. With devices and ploys that are totally superficial, obvious, without any moderation. The result, from a stylistic point of view, is more than debatable." Most critics agreed, however, that Loren was the sole bright spot in the film but it would be a long, dry spell until the actress appeared in a movie that was worthy of her talents - Ettore Scola's A Special Day in 1977, an intimate drama set during Mussolini's reign that was nominated for an Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Film. Loren's co-star in that, Marcello Mastroianni, also was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar®.
Producer: Carlo Ponti
Director: Renato Castellani
Screenplay: Adriano Baracco, Leonardo Benvenuti, Renato Castellani, Piero De Bernardi, Tonino Guerra, Eduardo De Filippo (novel)
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Film Editing: Jolanda Benvenuti
Art Direction: Piero Poletto
Music: Luis Enriquez Bacalov
Cast: Sophia Loren (Maria Lojacono), Vittorio Gassman (Pasquale Lojacono), Mario Adorf (Alfredo), Aldo Giuffre (Raffaele), Margaret Lee (Sayonara), Francis De Wolff (The Scotsman).
by Jeff Stafford