What would a modern Italian take on Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ look like?
The trope of a bad-tempered woman who needs to be tamed by a strong man was part of the folk culture long before it entered the literary realm in Shakespeare’s play, The Taming of the Shrew. It continued to appear in popular culture, for example in the John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara movies The Quiet Man and McLintock, well into the twentieth century when the rise of feminism finally put it to bed.
Spoiler Alert: but you do know how it ends, don’t you?
The 1980 Italian comedy Il Bisbetico Domato takes another shot at this trope but with a bit of a twist of its own. If you’re familiar with Italian, you may have guessed the twist from the title — the Shrew is male. However, don’t be fooled into thinking this film makes a feminist statement. In fact, far from it. (You can find the film in Italian with English subtitles on my YouTube channel Shakespeare on YouTube.)
Elia Codogno (Adriano Celentano) is a forty-year-old farmer who has managed to alienate all his neighbours in his small Northern Italian community with his belligerence and who refuses to have anything to do with women. One evening, during a heavy downpour, the beautiful and spirited Milanese socialite, Lisa Silvestri (Ornella Muti), knocks on his door. Her car has broken down and she demands shelter. Elia would happily throw her out into the rain, but his housekeeper insists that Lisa should spend the night in the guest room.
Lisa is immediately intrigued by Elia and sets out to seduce him, but Elia is impervious to her charms. In a bid to stay on, Lisa pretends to have injured her ankle and needs a few days’ bed rest. When Elia gleefully and very publicly exposes her deception, Lisa sets off to drive home to Milan, but furious and humiliated, she turns back to give Elia a piece of her mind. He takes this as a declaration of love, albeit, he declares, unrequited. In order to test her resolve, he challenges her to try out what life as his wife might be and work on his farm for a few days. However, despite her stalwart efforts, Elia still rejects her, so Lisa angrily returns to her old boyfriend.
At first, Elia tries to convince himself he’s better off without women, but, the next morning, on the verge of getting on a plane for a business trip, he turns back and finds Lisa watching a local basketball match between her boyfriend’s team and Elia’s village team which is being trounced. Despite never having played basketball before, in order to impress Lisa, Elia singlehandedly wins the game for his team. Now his village’s hero, and having certainly impressed Lisa with his physical prowess, Elia jumps up to her in the stands and peremptorily proposes they get married on the following Sunday. Lisa will not say ‘yes’ until Elia says that he loves her loudly enough for the whole stadium to hear and applaud him.
Franco Castellano and Pipolo were prolific film producers in their day and their films often featured the star of this film, Adriano Celentano. This fact is probably more pertinent to this film than its singular take on Shakespeare’s play.
As a comedy, the film is light-weight and makes a few dubious choices. Much of the humour stems from Elia’s bad temper, but time and again, the action is held up to showcase Celentano’s athleticism rather than to develop Elia’s character. Nor is the film’s psychology particularly convincing. Elia’s demeanour is so abrasive and so charmless that it is difficult to believe not only in him as a character, but why Lisa would be so attracted to him.
However, my biggest problem with this film is that, despite the reversal of gender roles, the gender politics is not very far removed from the original. While Lisa, who is a liberated, sexually adventurous woman, takes the initiative in this relationship, it is always Elia who has the upper hand.
The courtship takes place almost entirely on Elia’s farm where he is the lord of all he surveys. Time and again it is Elia who tests and humiliates Lisa. It is she who must prove she is worthy of his love. The only hint of Kate’s submission to Petruchio is his public declaration of love, but once again, he is the one applauded rather than Lisa. And while Elia finally succumbs to his feelings for Lisa, he gives no hint that his boorish character has changed.
This failure might simply be a product of Adriano Celentano’s position as an Italian movie star. The producers could not afford to jeopardise Celetano’s macho persona for the sake of psychological depth or artistic integrity!
In the end, however, these quibbles do not detract from the film’s message that, despite women’s liberation and the sexual revolution, gender relations have not really changed that much since Shakespeare’s time, in Italy or elsewhere.
© Pauline Montagna 2021