“Money doesn’t buy happiness. But happiness isn’t everything.” (Jean Seberg)
Spanning a little less than a decade, the strappalacrime sub-genre (better known as tearjerkers to English speakers) is one of the lesser documented group of films from the 1970s which had their fleeting moment in the spotlight not just in Italy but also internationally.
Released in 1973, Raimondo del Balzo’s ‘The Last Snows of Spring’ is widely regarded as the catalyst for this relatively short-lived genre. A huge (and largely unexpected) success at the Italian box-office, ‘The Last Snows of Spring’ appeared to strike a deep chord with the Italian audiences in much the same way Arthur Hiller’s Oscar-winning, and similarly plotted, ‘Love Story’ had done just two years earlier. Given the similarities, it’s hard to believe that this wasn’t yet another predictable attempt by Italian producers to cash-in on the very same premise: someone (always a little boy in the Italian variants) is diagnosed with a terminal illness, or winds up in a hospital bed through some mishap or other, and audiences get to cry their eyes out throughout their frequently hopeless journey.
This page kicks off with my first project in the series, ‘Il Venditore di Palloncini’ (Lit: The Balloon Seller) from 1974 and released internationally under the title ‘Last Moments’. Quite how director (and UFO expert) Mario Gariazzo managed to assemble such a talented cast is beyond me, but I suspect the topic of alcoholism (and acting drunk in particular) may have had something to do with it. Veteran Hollywood actors Lee J. Cobb and James Whitmore get top-billing, although it’s safe to assume that based on their rather weak performances both actors were in the twilight of their careers and generally slumming it in Rome for the paycheck. Joining them are Italian genre cinema regulars Adolfo Celi and Marina Malfatti. Rounding off the cast and reprising his role from ‘The Last Snows of Spring’ is child actor Renato Cestiè.
Without giving away any spoilers, it really is worth a watch just to marvel at how shamelessly the scriptwriters exploited the tropes of the genre, heaping tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy on the ill-fated protagonist. His father’s a drunk, his mother’s a whore and he’s dying because he overworked himself trying to save up enough money to buy his father a suit for his funeral…
Note: ‘Il Venditore di Palloncini’ is legally available to stream on the Minerva/Rarovideo YouTube! channel, “Films&Clips” It’s fullscreen/Italian audio only. There is also a TV recording (Odeon) which is slightly letterboxed.
Following his rather limited performance in ‘The Balloon Vendor’, child actor Renato Cestiè returns for his third offering in the genre, ‘White Horses of August’ (Export title: White Horses of Summer) this time supported by two stalwarts of high-brow (and low-brow) European cinema, Jean Seberg and Frederick Stafford. Tragically both actors died well before their time within a month of each other in the summer of 1979; Seberg was found dead from a suspected sleeping pill overdose in Paris and Stafford died when the plane he was in collided with another plane over a lake in Lugano, Switzerland. Ironically, both actors co-starred together just once in a film piled high with tragedy.
‘Bianchi Cavalli D’Agosto’ (1975) clearly boasts some very high production values and benefits greatly from being mostly shot on location in and around Gargano in the south of Italy. The script is surprisingly well-written and characters certainly appear well-rounded with some degree of depth. In short, this is everything ‘The Balloon Vendor’ isn’t in my humble opinion – and much closer to its original source of inspiration ‘The Last Snows of Spring’. The fact that both films were directed by Raimondo Del Balzo, who also died prematurely at the age of just 52, may explain a lot. Musician Franco Micalizzi, the go-to composer for the genre, delivers rousing orchestral score which tugs at the heartstrings throughout and cinematographer Roberto E’Ettorre Piazzoli delivers some great shots of the beautiful Italian coastline and the ruins of Pompeii.
This time around Bunny (Renato Cestiè) is once again being cared for by two very dysfunctional parents. His father (Frederick Stafford) is a part-time alcoholic who laments the fact that he can’t communicate with his wife or his son, and his wife (Jean Seberg) fills that void by sleeping around with the people they meet on their travels. Feeling ignored, Bunny creates a fantasy world dominated by Arabian Knights who he dreams will one day carry him away from his boring existence.
In closing, top marks should be given to Renato Cestiè who clearly has a script he can sink his teeth into (for once). He was evidently typecast in these roles (this was his third and final strappalacrime) and he didn’t go on to greater things in the film world, but it is nice to see him exit the stage with some degree of respectability.
Note: ‘Bianchi Cavalli D’Agosto’ (Export title: White Horses of Summer) is legally available to stream on the Minerva/Rarovideo YouTube! channel, “Films&Clips” (Italian audio only)