Maria Fitzgerald O’Malley (Brigitte Bardot) has been a bomb-flinging anarchist ever since she was a little girl. In 1907, she finds herself alone in South America after her father is blown up during his latest strike against the British Empire, and happens upon a travelling French stage troupe. Here she meets the like-named Maria (Jeanne Moreau) and partners with her to form a scandalously successful song-and-striptease act. Along with a colourful cast of acrobats, jugglers, a strong man and a magician, the ladies adventure across San Miguel, until imprisoned by sadistic dictator Rodriguez (Carlos López Moctezuma). Maria II falls in love with handsome freedom fighter Flores (George Hamilton), which further spurs Maria I to break out her sharp-shooter and bomb-making skills as the ladies become the unlikeliest of revolutionary heroines. Viva Maria!
An atypically frothy affair from Louis Malle, this superficially fits into a cycle of anti-capitalist anarchic comedies inflamed by the spirit of the Sixties, or the so-called “Zapata” spaghetti westerns set south of the border. Co-written by Malle and Jean-Claude Carriere, the film bears their surrealist wit with cartoon sight gags, sexual escapades and a hint of anti-Catholic satire, but remains primarily a glossy, Cinemascope romp foregrounding sexy stars, sumptuous South American scenery lensed by Henri Decaë, more explosions than a Michael Bay movie and a classy score from Georges Delerue.
Bardot and Moreau make a fine comic pairing, the former proving again she had plenty going for her beside blonde locks and a mesmerizing pout. Although unquestionably the more gifted actress, Moreau is rather subdued but her more sardonic sensuality contrasts nicely with Bardot’s girlish clowning. Their striptease act gets more daring with each performance - including one where the audience disrobes before they do! - and Malle playfully stages these musical numbers, referencing past masters from Vincente Minnelli to Stanley Donen.
Shame about George Hamilton and his OTT Spanish accent (“Aye yam driven to fight injoostice”), but an array of eccentric characters include Mexican horror regular Claudio Brook as the troupe’s ingenious gunsmith, whom Maria I shocks by advising how to built a gun that shoots round corners, the little boy constantly whose attempts to cop an eyeful of the Marias in action results in a slap from his mama, and a magician who clips hand grenades to his trained pigeons.
Malle imparts a lively, comic strip energy to proceedings, in compensation for the lack of genuine substance. Very 1960s in its allying of sexual with socio-political revolution, yet delivered with a uniquely surreal and erotic wit, as when Bardot hops into a carriage with three suitors and, it is implied, shags the bejeezus out of them. She saunters back home, looking quite radiant, the next morning and thereafter keeps score of her conquests from town to town. Or note the astonishing scene filmed with swirling cameras wherein the Marias overwhelm Rodriguez through sheer presence alone.
There is a scene where Maria II stirs the South American peasantry into revolution with a speech cheekily cribbed from William Shakespeare, that blurs the lines uncomfortably between social need and showbiz lark. A point Malle concedes when Maria I sharply rebukes her. Whereas Malle earlier injected a subversive, grownup subtext into his children’s comedy Zazie dans le Metro (1960), he doesn’t quite manage to elevate this above the level of a saucier Tintin adventure strip. Still, as cheery entertainment this is hard to beat and if you ever wanted to watch Brigitte Bardot mow down hordes of extras with a machinegun, this is the movie to see.