Monday, June 18, 2012

Alberto Lattuada | Il Cappotto (The Overcoat)

object of obsession
by Douglas Messerli

Alberto Lattuada, Giorgio Prosperi, Giordano Corsi, Enzo Curreli, Luigi Malerba, Leonardo Sinisgalli, and Cesare Zavattini (adaptation and screenplay, based on a story by Nikolai Gogol), Alberto Lattuada (director) Il Cappotto (The Overcoat) / 1952, USA 1953

The story, as any reader of Gogol knows, is a deceptively simple one. An obscure government worker, long in need of a new coat, spends his life-long earnings on a beautiful overcoat which, in turn, changes his whole conception of himself, as he is transformed from a menial lackey into a proud and handsome man. But the transformation lasts just for a day, for as he stumbles home on New Years' Eve he is approached by a stranger who steals the coat, resulting in the central character's death.

     Director Alberto Lattuada and his several co-writers transform Gogol's freezing government clerk into a small northern Italian calligrapher, Carmine de Carmine (played by the wonderful comedian Renato Rascel) working for a corrupt and pompous mayor (Giulio Stival) who, in his attempt to become a senator, ignores all the petitions and complaints of the citizens in order to further tax and fine them so that he might rebuild the center of the city in order to please the visiting emperor.

     Unlike his co-workers, who appear to do little work unless the  general secretary or the mayor enters their confines, de Carmine has the gift of creating beautifully formed alphabetical characters, noted by the mayor himself. But his calligraphic gift is a product of slow, quiet process, not the frenzied note-taking to which the mayor assigns him while meeting with a local professor—who has just discovered a small object from antiquity—and with other city leaders, who together conspire to cheat their citizens. Freezing in the windy, open air, expected to not only get the gist of their conversations but proffer them up in a misrepresentative rhetoric, de Carmine fails notably, and is even threatened with being fired.

     On top of this, his co-workers have mischievously conspired to tell daily petitioners that they must contact the powerless de Carmine. At home, his neighbors berate him for their new taxes and fines simply because he works for the government itself. Attempting to mend a hole in his coat, the overwhelmed nebbish becomes distracted by a beautiful woman in the apartment across the way—Caterina (Yvonne Sanson), who coincidentally is the mayor's not-so-secret lover—and cuts away a large part of his already fraying and hole-ridden coat! Indeed his coat has so deteriorated that the local tailor refuses to mend it, trying to convince the poor calligrapher that he needs a new garment.

     When he again encounters the same beautiful woman in a nearby shop, she does not even notice him! As critics have suggested, it is not simply that de Carmine is cold, is has been frozen out of existence. Looking as if he were a penniless street person, he is fed a few coins from her purse.

     Yet the cost of a new overcoat is unthinkable, particularly given his precarious position. When the next day he is called into the undersecretary's office, presumably to be dismissed, he cannot even enter the room; other officials stand before the door arguing with one another as they remark of the undersecretary's scandalous behavior. When de Carmine finally enters, he is, in fact, fired; but in explanation for his late entry, he repeats what he has  just overheard and is suddenly given a bonus and returned to his job. Without his knowledge, his silence has been bought.

     But now, at least, he can put down the money for a new coat! Lattuada's wonderful interludes between the timid and perpetually perplexed government worker and the gangly, excitable tailor are absolutely delightful as the two play out a sort of Abbott and Costello-like routine. As critic Dave Kehr has noted: "The scenes in which the tailor flutters about him, throwing out his spindly arms and legs like a Disney flamingo, are wonderful studies in motion." Both conflicted and confined in small frame shots the two work together with comic relish.

     With the tailor's complete abandonment into his creative act, moreover, we come to understand the utter joy of the recipient. Unlike Gogol's tale, the director here portrays the calligrapher's stroll into the world with his new layer of skin as gleefully as game played by a child, the tailor trailing after to spy on the reactions his new creation receives. Suddenly, the obscure nobody is transformed into a handsome man-about-town. For the first time, people suddenly notice him and even praise his mien. That evening, he is invited to the under secretary's apartment with the mayor in attendance!

     The event is a certain disaster as the changed man suddenly finds the courage, clothed in his coat, to dance with the mayor's girlfriend and even to present the petition to the mayor handed to him by an aged veteran who has been waiting for 40 years for a pension. With complete irony, Lattuada conveys his little hero's grand delusions as opposed to the utter disdain of his actions by his superiors. So obsessed is de Carmine by his new possession—clearly the only thing of worldly value in his life—that he is suddenly convinced that he has charmed everyone, when, of course, his character has only charmed the motion picture audience being told his tale. So does the director reveal the vast separation between a story and what the story relates as art.

     We know the ending; there can be no other possible way to rid one of such a delusion. The coat is stolen, de Carmine going mad and dying. Writers and director take their tale even further, as officials and leaders throughout the town begin to find their coats being pulled from them, buttons being stolen. Even if the film's final scene—in which the mayor, encountering the ghost of the nobody whom he has berated, promises to mend his ways—is unconvincing, we are struck by the quiet power of this seemingly insignificant man who has come to life, died, and come back to life again through the artistry of the tailor's creation.

Los Angeles, June 17, 2012

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