IL DISCO VOLANTE
Cast: Alberto Sordi (Vincenzo Berruti / Marsicano / Don Giuseppe / Conte Momi Crosara), Monica Vitti (Dolores), Eleonora Rossi Drago (Clelia), Silvana Mangano (Vittoria), Guido Celano (fratellastro di Vittoria), Alberto Fogliani (Il sindaco), Liana Del Balzo (la madre di Dolores), Albino Principe (Il vescovo), Gianluigi Crescenzi (Fantuzzi), Lars Bloch (Un fisico)
Uncredited (according to IMDB): Lello Bersani (Reporter), Carlo Mazzarella (Reporter), Piero Morgia (Un appuntato), Graziella Polesinanti (contessa Crosara), Erika Blanc.
Almost six months after the release of I marziani hanno 12 mani, another comedy science fiction film, Il disco volante, was released. Although little remembered today, this was a vehicle for the popular actor Alberto Sordi, who had achieved considerable success in productions such as Mafioso and The Great War; in fact, Sordi plays several different roles in the film, making it even more of a showcase for his comic talents. Starring opposite him is Monica Vitti, then better known as a muse for arthouse darling Michelangelo Antonioni (she was the female lead in L’avventura (60), La notte (61), L’eclisse (62)) and Silvana Mangano, whose stardom was ensured after her winning performance in Bitter Rice (49). Furthermore, it was produced by the legendary Dino De Laurentiis, all of which indicates that it was intended as more than just another gag-filled quickie along the lines of I marziani hanno 12 mani or Toto nella luna.
The province of Carpeneto in Veneto has been a notorious UFO hotspot for many years, but most of the witnesses have until now been either halfwits or drunkards. Until, that is, the Summer of 1960, when a flying saucer is seen landing in a farm by numerous people. This quickly hits the news, causing the Mayor to start fearing for the profitable tourist trade. The local Carabinieri, Sergeant Berruti (Alberto Sordi) is loath to investigate, figuring that anything which might be of an extra-terrestrial origin is outside his territory; until, that is, he has his ear chewed off by his superiors and is instructed to look into it, or else…
Berruti sets about interviewing the assorted witnesses, most of whom – a child fearing punishment from her parents, a daydreaming heiress – he finds rather implausible. But then other strange things begin to happen: people’s cars experience inexplicable mechanical failure; the electricity repeatedly cuts out; strange burn marks are found in some of the fields in the area. Then a pig farmer (Silvana Mangano) manages to capture one of the aliens, an unusually tall creature wearing a futuristic costume and with a strange smell, but she keeps it secret, hoping to sell it to the highest bidder. In the meantime, even while everything around him is becoming increasingly bizarre, Berrutti remains firmly convinced that nothing out of the ordinary is going on.
This is a thoroughly curious affair, which is so far distant from the other kinds of films being made in Italy at the time it’s hard to gauge whether it’s a success or a failure. In fact, it’s probably somewhere between the two. With a script by Rodolfo Sonego, a respected writer who was behind new wave features such as Una vita difficile (61) as well as prestigious comedies such as Crimen (61) and The Girl with a Pistol (68), it mixes its comic material with a dash of neo-realism (most particularly in the opening sequences, which are constructed like newsreel footage, complete with experts opining and eyewitness testimonies) and a certain degree of subversiveness (anyone who doesn’t stick to the party line is dismissed as mad, drunk, greedy or a sexual deviant).
Counterpointing this almost angry undertone is the fact that whole thing acts as a showcase for the comic skills of Alberto Sordi. Here he’s at his most Peter Sellers like, playing as handful of eccentric characters, all with their distinctive looks and mannerisms. As well as the downbeat Sergeant, complete with an appropriately droopy moustache, there’s a gay baronet, a sex mad accountant and a boozy priest. As a running gag, his characters are all gradually carted off to the madhouse, which is shown to be virtually crammed with multiple Sordis in the final scenes. But despite this, it’s not actually a very funny film; apart from Sordi’s shenanigans the humour is extremely wry and often leftfield. There’s plenty of the social observation that underpinned best of the commedia all’Italiana (such as the brief suggestion that the local worthies might think the aliens are there to stir up trouble among the peasants) but for long stretches it seems as though the comic approach has been discarded altogether: a lengthy sequence, for instance, sees one of the unfortunate witnesses – who everyone assumes to have gone mad – being subjected to brutal electric shock treatment.
Perhaps this was down to the director’s inexperience. This was only Brass’s second feature after the obscure Chi lavora è perduto (In capo al mondo) (63), and was also just about his only all-out comedy. He later became famous for his erotic films of the 1970s and 80s, some of which had a certain saucy sense of irony which is on display here, but there’s also plenty of evidence the direction his career would take, most particularly the arrival of a female Martian wearing a S&M style costume with see through glass cones covering her breasts and an orgiastic party at the local manor house. He also throws in some of the modernist touches that would characterise his pop-art films of the late 1960s, including funky editing and a deliberately fractured narrative, all of which combines to make a film which is way ahead of its time, from a stylistic point of view (and sometimes rather like something Woody Allen would have made if he was Italian rather than a Jewish American). He also spends an unusual amount of time concentrating on the more science fiction elements of the plot – he seems particularly pleased with his flying saucer, which is the centre of a scene which lasts a good couple of minutes – and which, combined with the fact that the makers obviously had a more than passing acquaintance with the arcana of alien encounters, suggests that his interest in the genre came from more than simply an opportunity to make a cheap gag.
The sergeant of the Carabinieri in a Venetian village was given the responsibility for conducting investigations on the arrival of a flying saucer. During the investigation asks a group of people who claim to have actually seen the Martians. In the end, only Victoria, a poor peasant widow with many children, is able to take over for a Martian, and sells it to his master. The man’s mother, however, suppresses the Martian, accusing the country of fraud and sent his son in a mental hospital. In this way, all the protagonists of the story are accused of being visionaries and the sensational incident was soon buried in the general indifference.
1964’s “The Flying Saucer” is a rarely seen Italian comedy from director Tinto Brass, not to be confused with 1949’s “The Flying Saucer,” starring its director, Mikel Conrad. Alberto Sordi essays four different roles, mainly as the investigating police sergeant who deadpans throughout the film as each ‘eyewitness’ confesses to seeing something completely different from everyone else. As the telegrapher, he actually spies the saucer (a dead ringer for the Jupiter 2 from LOST IN SPACE), as well as its occupant, a comely Martian female who does little but wander around, mistaken for a Mardi Gras costumer (shades of “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars”). Sordi’s priest spends more time in the local saloon than he does in church, and all four wind up in the asylum by film’s end, treated by electroshock therapy because no one will believe them. Fans of Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater rang in the new year, Jan 1 1972, with 1963’s “Unearthly Stranger,” followed by “The Flying Saucer,” thematically linked by their attractive female invaders.