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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Most people think of the burst of creative energy from the Italian
cinema after 1945 as mostly serious, in films like "Open City", "The
Bicycle Thief", "La Strada", and "La Dolce Vita". In reality the films
of that period included some extremely funny comedies. Even a master of
serious (if fantastic) cinema like Frederico Fellini did "The White
Sheik" with Alberto Sordi. But besides that you had films like "Big
Deal On Madonna Street", "Divorce Italian Style", "Marriage Italian
Style", and "Seduced And Abandoned".
"Fantasmi a Roma" ("Ghosts of Rome") was one of these comedies - an extremely good one. It has a nice,twisted little plot, and some good characterizations comparing the fairly likable set of ghosts (with their sense of responsibility and honor to the past) with a modern set of greedy materialists.
The film is set in a palace in the eternal city. There are a set of ghosts residing in the palace, headed by Reginaldo (Marcello Mastroianni), an 18th Century Casanova clone, Father Bartolomeo (Tino Buozzelli), a monk who died centuries earlier when he was accidentally poisoned by his abbot who was trying to kill the "rat" that was eating too much of the monastery's larder, and Dona Flora (Sandra Milo), an 18th Century romantic who drowned herself for love. There existence is noted by the current owner of the palace, Don Anibale, Prince di Roviano (Eduardo De Filippo). He in fact tells another character about the history of the ghosts, as well as of his older brother. The older brother ghost leads to the initial stage of goofiness in the film - Don Anibale was only six when his older brother died (age ten). Don Anibale is now in his seventies. As he dies in the film, when he returns as a ghost to join the others he embraces his older brother who looks more like his grandson!
Don Anibale is killed in a gas oven explosion, and this is unfortunate because he was used to (and friendly with) the ghosts, and his heir Frederico (Mastroianni again) is not interested in them or the palace or traditions at all. He just knows the palace is an expensive white elephant that is worth a fortune because of the land it's located on. He and his girl friend Eileen (Belinda Lee) have made arrangements to sell the property for a small fortune to a developer.
The ghosts are naturally upset by this turn of events and try to derail it. First they try the obvious - scare and annoy Frederico and Eileen into leaving. All this does is make the pair more determined to get rid of the palace. Then they try to convince the authorities that the house is unsafe for a wrecking crew. This actually backfires, as it convinces the authorities the building should be dismantled. They try to convince the authorities (in a switch) that the building has historical interest - and we watch while the developer and Frederico use generous dollops of cash to convince the authorities to ignore the historical interest.
Fate steps in, as an accident reveals a long hidden fresco. Reginaldo recognizes it as the work of Giovanni Battista Vilari (Vittorio Gassman), a talented but egotistical painter of the late baroque, early rococo periods. Gassman steals the last twenty minutes of the film when he returns to salvage his fresco, improve it, and finally prove to those idiot art critics that he was the greatest Italian painter of his age, and not some generally agreed upon rival he can't stand. In the end his painting does save the day - but in a surprisingly odd manner.
This film remains a treasured memory to me after all these years (it has not been on television in New York City since the 1970s, I'm sorry to say). The seesawing battle between a set of dead but lovable human beings and selfish living ones is odd, with Mastoianni ably demonstrating his acting in several roles (including a third towards the end of the film). It's considerations of landmark status for endangered buildings is still a vital and timely one, and never has such a dry subject managed to be captured so humorously or so humanely.
An old prince (Eduardo De Filippo) lives in his ancient palace in Rome together with the ghosts of his ancestors; he proudly rejects a huge offer for the palace by a real estate group seeking a place to build a department store; but the prince suddenly dies (and joins the ghosts!) and his nephew (Marcello Mastroianni), just back from the States, sells the palace for a much lesser price. The old palace seems lost but here come the ghosts which manage to create a Caravaggio-like painting in the palace, which is so declared national monument and saved from destruction. A little satirical masterpiece about real estate speculation in 1950s Italy. And a great cast with the best Italian actors of the time: Eduardo, Buazzelli, Gassman and Mastroianni playing three characters.
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