In July 1943 the small Italian hill town of Santa Vittoria awakes to news of historic importance. Mussolini and his fascist government has fallen. The news leaves the people unmoved until someone explains they can now kick the local political bosses in the ass, like they always wanted to. The whole town goes on a celebratory spree, none more so than Italo Bombolini (Anthony Quinn), humble wine seller, town drunk and a man generally dismissed as a useless clown, not least by his wife, Rosa, (Anna Magnani).
Meanwhile, the former bosses are wondering how to save their own necks. When they hear the mob chanting the name 'Bombolini', they decide the safest course is to hand power to the people's choice and the town drunk/clown is made “Mayor of the Free City of Santa Vittoria”. To everyone's surprise, Bombolini proves a shrewd and intelligent leader: he satisfies the vanity of the local big-shots by making them the “Grand Council” of the town, and starts a civic improvement programme with his own political philosophy (“Better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a donkey” - Mussolini; “Better to live 100 years” - Bombolini).
Bombolini then faces his greatest challenge. The town is to be occupied by the German army, and the Germans have orders to remove anything of negotiable value to help pay for the war. For Santa Vittoria this means the wine the people have nurtured and worked for over many years. This is their collective wealth. Bombolini decides there is only one thing to do: hide the wine (or most of it) from the Germans. After a false start, one million bottles are literally passed hand to hand by the townspeople, from the cooperative wine cellar, through the town, down to a series of side-tunnels in a local cave, which are then blocked off with Roman-style brickwork to look suitably undisturbed-for-centuries.
The Germans arrive. Bombolini's policy is “butter on the nose. They push, we give. They keep on pushing, we keep on giving.” Anything for survival. Bombolini assures the German army Captain von Prumm (Hardy Krüger) the town has 310,000 bottles of wine in stock. 317,601 the captain replies. He has made his own inventory. As Bombolini explains to Rosa: the captain has to know Bombolini is cheating him, because if he doesn't think he is cheating he's going to wonder why he is not cheating, then he will know he is being cheated. Then the head of the local wine cooperative tells the Germans that Santa Vittoria should have another million bottles somewhere.
A battle of wits and wills starts between Bombolini and the Captain, Bombolini insisting there is no wine, the Captain determined to prove there is. Things take a sinister turn as the SS become involved. The townspeople hand over the former fascist bosses (who have been under arrest and know nothing of the hidden wine) to be tortured to save their heritage, even the threat of executing a hostage or Bombolini himself fails to break the town's silence.
Finally, with the war going badly, the Germans are forced to withdraw from the town. Von Prumm asks Bombolini one last time to tell him there is no wine. Bombolini affirms: “There is no wine.” But as a parting gift he offers a bottle to the Captain. “Are you sure you can spare it?” asks the Captain sarcastically. “There are one million more where that came from,” Bombolini replies.
At over two hours 'Santa Vittoria' is a long film and could have benefited from some cutting. The sub-plot of a romance between the local Contessa and a former peasant/army deserter tends to slow things down when we just want to concentrate on the main story of Bombolini, von Prumm and the wine. This, the story of the townspeople working together to achieve a common goal, is the true heart of the film.
In the late 1960's, following his work in Zorba the Greek, Anthony Quinn seemed to be the ubiquitous actor required to project earthy, lusty peasants. So here we have Zorba the Italian: loud, unshaven, dancing, slobbery eating. It is a very broad performance, and it is a bit over-the-top, but somehow we can accept it is in character (in a similar way to Rod Steiger's Juan in “Duck, you sucker/Fistful of Dynamite”). Anna Magnani as Rosa is more than a match for Quinn as the 'typical' plate-throwing, rolling-pin wielding Italian wife (“Ah, Rosa, I love it when you're like this, it reminds me of our honeymoon,” he tells her). Magnani hated working with Quinn (the feeling was mutual) which not only sharpened her aim with the plates and the rolling-pin, but led to her kicking him so hard she broke her toe and biting him in the neck; when Quinn protested it wasn't in the script, Magnani snarled back: "I'm supposed to win this fight, remember?".
As von Prumm, Hardy Krüger is a 'good' German, trying to maintain a civilised relationship with Bombolini and only reluctantly allowing the SS to use torture to uncover the town's secret. His performance is not entirely convincing in conveying von Prumm's initial attitude of tolerant amusement with the Italians giving way to full-blown exasperation when he realises he has been thwarted by a bunch of peasants. Another sub-plot concerns his infatuation with the Contessa, which turns to disgust when he finds her living with the army deserter (about which he does nothing, strange for a German officer), but again this just seems to slow down the action.
The film certainly looks good, filmed by Italian cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. The opening titles play over a series of images of local people given a 'canvas' effect, and they do look like a series of Old Master paintings. The town and the hills are perfectly realised and give a strong sense of place and time. The music by Ernest Gold is suitably Italian and complements the action: the sleepy town, the determination to hide the wine, and the celebrations when Santa Vittoria scores its own little victory in the war.
'Santa Vittoria' didn't do good box-office when it was released, it was slightly out of step with the times. While it is a little overlong, it is still a heart-warming story with a feel-good ending. It provides good entertainment and is and well worth watching.