Monday, January 26, 2009

Ubalda, All Naked and Warm (1972): or, Lust in Translation

It's a time-honored truth that a man will do almost anything for a woman he loves. He will go to war, risking death and dismemberment just to appear brave in her eyes. He will make himself a fool in the world's opinion, just to see her smile. He will travel great distances, climb insurmountable peaks and traverse impassable rivers in hope of the reward of her kiss. He will risk everything--financial security, personal ruin, even eternal damnation--for one night by his beloved's side. Whether because of genetic programming or something more romantic, spiritual and mysterious, a man will do just about anything for love.

He will even watch a zany Italian comedy like Mariano Laurenti's near-mirthless 1972 effort, Ubalda, All Naked and Warm.

Fortunately, in this case, love-object Edwige Fenech is NOT a tease.

It's not for nothing that foreign-language comedies rarely make the leap across the pond to widespread acclaim in the US. Comedy is hard, and it's even harder to translate. Just think of how many of your favorite jokes depend on an in-depth knowledge of cultural customs and attitudes (and the consequences of their transgression) in order to work; think of all the punchlines that draw laughter because one word sounds so very like another, unspoken word, or because a character inadvertently repeats a bit of bawdy slang. Little wonder that many of the comedies that *do* make the leap rely instead on pratfalls and fart jokes.

The only reason to watch this movie. It's a good enough reason.

In this case, the guys at NoShame Films did the best they could with this lovingly put-together DVD. An info-blurb at the beginning of the movie asserts that "Given the linguistic peculiarity of the dialog, the English subtitles have been adapted to preserve the irony" and verbal playfulness of the original. I applaud the effort, but again, some things apparently just don't translate well. Either that, or the Italian sense of humor is far broader and more juvenile than I would have preferred to think.

As with most comedies of the OMG ZANY variety, Ubalda establishes a basic frame in the beginning and then hangs as many crazy set-pieces on it as possible throughout the remaining reels. Sometime in the Middle Ages, rural farmer and all-around goofball Olimpio (big-nosed, rubber-faced comic Pippo Franco) has been away to war, and is now returning to his village of "Watch-the-Hole" where his improbably gorgeous wife Fiamma (Karin Schubert) is waiting for him. Worried about her fidelity, Olimpio has fitted his wife with a chastity belt, which he obviously just can't wait to get home and unlock.

We meet Olimpio on the road to Watch-the-Hole and suffer through a few sight gags (His visor keeps falling down when he tries to get a drink! When he gets the water at last, it sprays out of his body like a Tom & Jerry cartoon!) before he meets up with and tries to rob a traveling monk, Il Frate Manesco (Pino Ferrara). The holy man gets the better of him easily, then invites the starving soldier to dinner, giving the ugly Franco a chance to brag about his romantic conquests. A sampling of the hilarity:
Monk: Have women always fallen for you?
Olimpio: They died for me!
Monk: For your charm?
Olimpio: No, I had an infectious disease!

Merits further study.

The soldier and holy man travel together for a while, giving Olimpio the chance to attempt hilarious rape on a village girl (this is the cultural thing I'm talking about--rape as humor! Then again, the girl is not exactly unwilling, which I guess is part of the joke), from which the horny friar rescues her and then "cancels her sins with his holy body." Laffin' yet?

Eventually Olimpio makes it back to Watch-the-Hole, and nobody cares, least of all his wife. Fiamma and her many lovers have found the holes in Olimpio's security measures IYKWIMAITYD, leading to a scene in which the oblivious husband bathes while Fiamma empties the house of a half-dozen men she has stowed in trunks, barrels, closets, and even under the marriage bed. (As a reward for sitting through this "comedy," we do get to watch Schubert bathe and prance around fully nude, showing off a frankly yummy bod--so that's something, anyway.)

Olimpio's troubles mount when Fiamma informs him that she's taken a two-week vow of chastity to St. Fertility in exchange for his safe return from the war. Upset, Olimpio details his hardships: "Six months of abstinence! I didn't even get a goat!" Much more humor is wrung out of Olimpio's attempts to get Fiamma to forget her oath, including the old 'he slips his hand under her dress and gets it snapped in a mousetrap' gag. ("You could at least add a little cheese!" Olimpio quips, in a joke I hope is less disgusting in Italian than in English.)

"Are *you* the Keymaster?"

Meanwhile, Olimpio's hated neighbor, the Miller Oderisi (Umberto D'Orsi), has similar problems. His heart-stoppingly gorgeous bride Ubalda (Edwige Fenech, absolutely ROCKING the period costumes and braided auburn wig) goes into a faint every time he wants to make love, a malady he's sure has nothing to do with his being an old, fat, disgusting slob. Insanely jealous of the strapping young mill workers he employs, Oderisi has likewise fitted his wife with Iron Panties, which are just as effective as Olimpio's at keeping Ubalda from banging every man-jack in the tri-village area. When Olimpio and a super-gay notary drop by the mill to settle a boundary dispute, the soldier falls head-over-cock for the miller's wife and sets about devising ways to get his hands on her huge tracts of land.

Enough cannot be said about the absolute gob-smacking gorgeousness of Edwige Fenech in this movie. She's really the person for whom the term OMG SMOKIN' HAWT ZANG! was invented. Add the aforementioned period gowns and luscious auburn glory, and it's no wonder the mill workers all start humping the flour sacks uncontrollably whenever she's around; by God, you'd do the same. And perhaps out of compassion and pity for the viewer, Edwige is not at all reticent about dropping her dirndl for the camera. I don't know if she's naked more often than not in the movie, but the percentages have GOT to be close.

And thank God for that, because otherwise the movie would be unbearable. As you could predict, the rest of the runtime involves Olimpio trying to get past Oderisi and into Ubalda's metallic lingerie, which he almost manages once by posing as a gay painter commissioned by the local Duke to do her nude portrait. (Of course the plan fails due to Olimpio's ZANY inability to keep his fake moustache on.) We get more silliness with the monk, who also hates Oderisi and tries to help Olimpio with his plan (when he's not with the local barmaid, absolving her sins like a mad jackrabbit). There's more scheming from Fiamma and her lovers (leading to an out-of-place and kind of disturbing near-death scene for Olimpio--brained by a morningstar, he falls against a wall and slides down, leaving a trail of blood on the plaster), and a final agreement between the horny, feuding neighbors that involves swapping keys and making the best of things.

You'd still do it.

I like to think of myself as a cosmopolitan sort, but it's really hard for me to imagine that the jokes presented here were EVER funny. However, the spectacle of a frequently nude Fenech all but cancels those concerns out. An early dream sequence in which Edwige runs in slow motion through a field wearing nothing but her chastity belt, stockings, and an impossibly ornate veil is worth sitting through the movie twice for. Later scenes where she strips and poses for the "painter" are so goddamn beautiful they ought to be on loops in museums. Whenever Edwige is on screen, the badness of everything before it just melts away, leaving you in a wonderful, brightly-colored happy place. (And Karin Schubert is no slouch, either.) But unfortunately Edwige can't be onscreen *all* the time, and whenever she's not, the Deep Hurting starts again.

To be fair, there are a few lines that are almost funny. For instance, Olimpio's theology discussion with the monk gave me a small smile. ("Are you at peace with God?" "Yes--well, we say hi, but we don't really talk.") Also, a late scene the crazed blacksmith/chastity belt inventor shows Olimpio and then Oderisi his Panties of Penile Destruction led to a joke that actually evinced a small chuckle. ("Did that scare you?" "Does noise weigh?" "No." "Then I shitted myself!")

I'm glad I watched Ubalda, All Naked and Warm, and I would definitely watch it again--with one hand firmly on the remote control, ready to fast-forward, pause, and rewind as necessary. Splitting the difference between painful lost-in-translation comedy and transcendent nude gorgeosity from Edwige, I'll settle on giving Ubalda a 1.5 thumb rating. (Your mileage will vary depending on the ratio of your tolerance for beyond-dumb humor to your devotion to all things Edwige.) And remember: before you give your chastity belt key to a neighbor, make sure the one he gives YOU actually works.


Note: the NoShame DVD includes an interview with an older but still smokin' Edwige Fenech, who talks briefly and interestingly about her fortunate ability to switch between comedies and gialli at the height of her career. She also talks about her relationship with Federico Fellini and her just-missing being cast in Amacord, and though she claims to have no regrets about her career, you can almost see her thinking "What if." Finally she sings Quentin Tarantino's praises for a while, a bit over-exuberantly, but no doubt she's sincere.

Also included is a collection of trailers for other comedies starring Fenech, including an amazing one for The Sexy Schoolteacher Comes Back with a funked-up version of "Fuer Elise" for the score. I'm guessing the comedy in these films translates just as poorly, but again there's plenty of naked Edwige, so I'll probably be looking for copies anyway. :)



Tenebrous Kate said...

I find myself strangely aroused by Edwige's hair moustache. Yes--yes I would still do it.

Unknown said...

As with quite a few Edwige Fenech movies--she's the only reason I need to check them out. I still look forward to checking this one out, even if I don't quite "get" all Italian comedies. Most of them are usual worth a few chuckles.

Jack Guignol said...

Ubalda makes a lot more sense if you consider it in the same vein as Renaissance/early modern theatrical farce. With more titties.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Kate--I thought you might. ;)

Rev.--I actually put in my notes during the long slo-mo dream sequence, "Edwige is totally worth it. I would sit through this twice, just for this scene." Sounds like you would too! ;)

Jack--thanks for the comment! I did understand that we weren't in the "real world" from the moment Olimpio started leaking like a watering can when he drank from the fountain. As a fan of Renaissance lit, I can see the farce aspect to Ubalda, and perhaps with slightly different direction (or a different lead actor) I'd have found it funnier than I did. Or maybe not--I have to think the linguistic barrier here renders some jokes lame that in the original might have been at least passably amusing.

>>With more titties.

You know, I'm thinking this could be just the idea we need to make classic literature come alive for today's youth. Or at least for jaded English majors like me. ;)

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