Published August 1, 1998
The Best Man, written and directed (in Italian) by Pupi Avati begins by solemnly informing us that “Once upon a time, women would marry not knowing what love was. . .” And lest you think, in a moment of nervousness, that you might not know what it is either, the film hastens to explain that it consists of that “sensation of the soul” that the romantic treasures above all things. How desperately sad, how tragic even, that these poor women from long ago would never know, in all their life, this s.of the s., and that they would be condemned to a hellish existence in which love was confused with duty or respect. This film, we are told, is about the courage of one woman who, for the sake of such a soul sensation, did a deed “shattering” to the conventions of ordinary love and marriage.
Naturally this act is emblematic of a larger liberation, and the film is set on New Year’s eve,1899, so as to make full use of the portents associated with the turn of the century. The old century stands as the symbol of a tradition which is by now, of course, long dead, but which apparently we still need as a means of defining ourselves. So long as we can still watch fictional accounts of dynastic marriages arranged by greedy fathers for innocent and vulnerable daughters who have been prepared as sacrifices to some boorish bore of a husband—so long as we curse the one and weep for the other, we are able to remind ourselves of why we cling so fiercely to our own socio-sexual order, for all its manifest inadequacies, in which anyone is free at any time to dissolve the most solemn of vows and obligations in order to seek new soul-sensations.
The sacrificial daughter in this case is the beautiful Francesca Babini (Ines Sastre), obliged to rescue her father’s fortunes by marrying the piggish Edgardo Osti (Dario Cantarelli). But Edgardo is himself wooing the money of a young man, Angelo Beliossi (Diego Abatantuono), who has recently returned from America with a large fortune. Edgardo wants him to invest in his family business. In order to make firm the bond between them, Edgardo invites Angelo to be best man at his wedding to Francesca. Francesca tries to back out of the wedding even before going to the church, but is made to feel guilty by the prospect of her father’s ruin. At the ceremony itself she again excuses herself, eventually forcing herself to go through with it.
But afterwards she insists that when she said “I do” she was actually saying it to Angelo, whom she had just laid eyes on for the first time on walking into the church, and that, accordingly, in the eyes of God, he was her husband. Consternation among the families, the wedding guests, the servants, the on-lookers and, indeed, the whole village, ensues. Just imagine a woman doing such a thing on her wedding day! The first 20th century gal, utterly a slave to her feelings, is ready when the century is!
Well, you can guess how it ends, though it takes rather a long time getting there, and along the way we get to observe quite a number of quaint old Italian customs associated with sex and marriage which are all completely charming, so long as you don’t take the idea of marriage itself too seriously—at least marriage as anything but the temporary union of self-proclaimed soul mates. We are also offered a quantity of cheap ironies thrown in as lagniappe with the period setting. There are toasts to the 20th century upcoming and with it the prospects of a time when “science will solve all our problems,” will even, perhaps, invent a “vaccine against iniquity” and we will all enjoy, surely, the first century in the history of the world without war. “Will we go to the moon?” Who knows? Perhaps even that.
Funny that no one mentions the sexual revolution, which seems to be starting under their very noses.