As anyone who has ever seen the likes of Wall-E or even Army of Darkness knows all-too-well, heroes can sometimes spawn from the most unlikely of sources. In the case of Stanley Kramer's 1969 World War II comedy/drama The Secret of Santa Vittoria, our protagonist is essentially little more than the village idiot. As word reaches the sleepy Italian winemaking village of Santa Vittoria that Mussolini is dead and that the good, simple people of the community are now free from the tyranny of fascism, local wine seller Italo Bombolini (Anthony Quinn) ascends to the top of a water tower with the intent of painting over the very pro-Mussolini caption he proudly placed on display there nearly twenty years before.
But the political state of the country is not the only thing that has changed: Bombolini himself has let his passion for being his own best customer get the better of him, and is nothing more than a drunken clown. His plight to right his previous wrong is mistaken for a suicide attempt - either way, it does not affect his long-suffering, loud-mouthed, highly-opinionated wife Rose (Anna Magnani) in the least bit - and local college boy Fabio (a young Giancarlo Giannini) rushes up the tower to help the faltering drunkard down. Succeeding in turning the crowd's jeering into that of cheering, Bombolini's name reverberates throughout the small stone city - and its panicking former fascist leaders quickly elect the drunken town clown as their new mayor.
Oh, come on, it's not like that would have been the first time in history a village idiot was elected into office. And Bombolini is most assuredly a buffoon. But he does not tank the local economy or take his people to war, though. Instead, he takes action to preserve that which periodically tanks him: the local wine. 1,317,000 bottles of it, in fact - all of which the Nazis intend to siege once Fabio - the only man in the community to ever pass even a fourth grade education - discovers that the Germans are occupying Italy bit by bit. Enlisting the assistance of the only soldier in the area - a deserter named Tufa (the one and only Sergio Franchi) - Bombolini and his gathering of other smalltown minds come up with a grand plan to conceal a majority of the wine from the approaching enemy.
A genuine gem of a miracle movie, The Secret of Santa Vittoria has a delightful resonance about it, one that makes the viewer close their eyes, cross their fingers, and hope to whatever deity they happen to believe in that it was based on true story. And while It isn't (though something along those lines could very well have happened in the real Santa Vittoria or a similar wine-producing community during the war for all we know), a great mark of respect goes to the imaginative mind of author Robert Crichton for the 1966 novel that inspired this big-screen adaptation. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World director Stanley Kramer delivers a charming tale here, whether he is assembling the world's longest buddy system line to transport a million bottles of wine from one odd-looking extra to another, or initiating various subplots of love during a time of hate.
Even the principal Nazi in the story - elegantly and efficiently portrayed by Hardy Krüger (Barry Lyndon, The Wild Geese) - is a sympathetic character. Though more than just a bit peeved over the locals' constant iterating of "There is no wine", he is also a vulnerable man; attracted to a fleeing contessa Caterina (Italian goddess Virna Lisi), who is in-turn torn between the life she has left behind and the advances of tough guy Tufa, and far too proud to let a bunch of simple Italians - especially an idiot like Bombolini - get the better of him. While Quinn is no doubt at the top of his game here, Krüger and his nice butt also add a considerable deal to the film. As they typically did throughout their careers, Wolfgang Jensen, Chris Anders, and Peter Kuiper play German soldiers here, while the Italian townsfolk are represented by Renato Rascel, Patrizia Valturri, Leopoldo Trieste, and even the Mysterious Doctor Satan himself, Eduardo Ciannelli (in his second-to-last film)!
Though previously issued on DVD by MGM as a barebones release, that now out of print offering is ready to litter many a thrift store shelf thanks to this upgrade from Twilight Time. Not only does the 1080p transfer give us a substantial improvement in the way of a clear, crisp, and vibrant video presentation and an English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track (with optional English [SDH] subtitles), but we also get a Ernest Gold's Oscar-nominated score available in an isolated 2.0 DTS-HD MA selection and the film's original theatrical trailer. Additionally, Julie Kirgo once more turns in another exemplary essay on the subject of the moving pictures that receives nary a note from this college professor (OK, so I'm really more of a clown myself, but if Bombolini can pull off hiding a million bottles of wine from the Germans…). Highly recommended.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria is limited to only a pressing of 3,000 units from the folks at Twilight Time, and is available exclusively from Screen Archives.