Valerio Montelli (Alessio Orano) is an Italian student at the English University of Oxford who is having trouble fitting in with the upper crust who populate those hallowed halls of learning. He is as polite as he can be with his fellow students, but there's a hierarchy of which he is on the bottom rung, but he thinks he can get along with most people, even the rather snobbish top dog Roderick Stanton (John Steiner), with whose girlfriend Flora Finlake (Jane Birkin) Valerio is on friendly terms. Her father is one of the dons, though she appears to be trying to distance herself from him to escape her family's shadow, and Valerio could be part of that, only he is more interested in joining the rowing team for the celebratory May Morning contest...
To see ourselves as others see us, as Robert Burns said, you could do worse than to take a look at how the culture of other nations depicts your own, and here was a curiosity from the moment the wave of the Swinging Sixties broke on the shore of the seventies, filmed in 1969 but offering a cynical take on the young folks who were meant to be the future. Or the British version at least, as the students depicted here ascribed to a climate of bullying anyone who did not fit into their rigid beliefs of what was acceptable in terms of background, so if you were not part of that, according to director Ugo Liberatore anyway, you could find your life made a misery by the insufferable snobs surrounding you.
All of which suggested he was more familiar with a work such as Tom Brown's Schooldays rather than being in touch with the increasingly politicised and egalitarian (assuming you could get the grades to allow yourself entry) university campuses of the late sixties. The times they were a-changing, though not according to Liberatore whose take on college life was firmly placed in an earlier era when being a foreign student would mark you out as some kind of freak amidst the Brits, but was that ever the case? Late on at the party we can glimpse a black girl sitting alone and miserable, as if to point out that not only were these societies alienating, they were racist as well, given nobody was giving her the time of day.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves, and if you were sceptical as to how faithful to the university experience May Morning was, there was a method in its madness, though that turned out to be as mad as what had led up to it. It was a slow-burning drama that did not appear to be leaning heavily on exaggeration until you reached a certain point and twigged that this was one of those Italian movies where the consideration of the upper classes was informed by a revolutionary belief that these people were hopelessly corrupt and needed to be overthrown to create a better world. The trouble with that here was the film merely illustrated their bad behaviour, some would say evil, without presenting a solution: it was just a story to get you angry about the excessively privileged and pampered.
Whether it would or not was depending on how far you went along with that viewpoint, as it was difficult to marry up the movie's version of how things went down in Oxford and what the reality was, meaning this might as well have plunged straight into thriller territory and had a ball with it rather than keeping a certain reserve to the over the top finale which was landed on you out of nowhere. The rivalry between Valerio and Roderick was good to build the plot on, and the strikingly blue-eyed Orano played well off Steiner's suave nastiness, the latter about to embark on a successful career in Italy the go-to-guy for villainy, as meanwhile Birkin (then a big name in Britain after her saucy hit single with Serge Gainsbourg) started out seeming nice enough, but once she tried to seduce Valerio turned as unpleasant as her boyfriend. That sense of a hero under siege was also strong, but the way it was resolved was needlessly redundant in the setting that did not need to head straight into rape and death to wrap its story up. Still, its unreal, off-kilter, superficially subversive but actually reactionary tone was compelling. Music by The Tremeloes.