While the Brits deluged Cannes ’68 with swinging psychedelic romps, the Italians seemed to specialize in genre films with political subtexts — certainly the late Carlo Lizzani (he took a header off his balcony, aged 91, shortly after I wrote an appreciation of his BANDITI A MILANO and commented approvingly on the longevity of his career) was fond of tying social commentary to thriller or western stories, and something similar seems to have animated Marcello Fondato, director and co-author (with the great Ennio Flaiano, Fellini’s regular writer up until EIGHT AND A HALF) when he made I PROTAGONISTI.
A group of tourists in Sardinia is invited, for a substantial fee, to drive into the wilderness and meet a real bandit. The thrill-starved modern civilized types can’t wait to pose for photographs with this exotic barbarian, so they pile into a car and take to the hills, followed without their knowledge by the local police commissar and a zealous division of troops, all hoping to take down the districts most wanted man, and more or less happy to use the dumb tourists as bait.
All of this is curious enough, decently shot amid parched landscapes, and jauntily scored by Luis Bacalov, and with an attractive cast impersonating the unattractive, shallow characters, who might be more at home in a giallo, where they could get sliced to pieces for our amusement. Sylva Koscina and Pamela Tiffin provide female glamour, and Jean Sorel the male side. Lou Castel, the hunky bandit, is a man who would have had a busy Cannes if either of his two entries (this and GRAZIE, ZIA, previously reviewed in horror by Scout) had actually screened.
Fondato was one of several directors who had they debut feature scheduled to screen at Cannes — one does rather sympathise with those who protested that it was all very well for Godard and Truffaut to try to shut down the festival — they’d already had their careers launched. Fondato managed six more features, mostly comedies (classy affairs, featuring Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitti and, er, Terence Hill & Bud Spencer).
If I PROTAGONISTI isn’t ultimately as striking and impressive as it means to be, it’s perhaps because the shallow characters remain protagonists — they don’t implicate the audience, since we can feel comfortably superior to them at all times. Pam Tiffin plays an “independent woman” proud of relying on no man, but she’s borrowed the money from one of the others in order to make this trip. There’s sexual tension galore as all the men want to seduce both the women. Corrupt business practices are suggested in the background of one character. It doesn’t quite add up to a cross-section of the modern malaise, but you sense that’s the intention.
Still, the picture moves well, with typical Italian flare, and one set-piece, a headlong downhill foot chase, is both gripping and powerfully dynamic — the sheer unflagging momentum and duration have you wondering how much more intense can this possibly get, how much longer can it possibly go on?