Boccaccio ’70 is a multi-part modern variation on the saucy sex stories in The Decameron. Because the four parts have little similarity besides the influence of Boccaccio, it makes sense to discuss them separately.
While more serious in tone than the other segments of Boccaccio ’70, “Il lavoro” (“The Job”), the third of the four, is arguably the only one to come close to the feel of The Decameron. The combination of risqué humor and a slightly acrid aftertaste is similar to the way Boccaccio leavens the sex in some of his stories with double-edged irony. In this story Pupe (Romy Schneider) is married to Conte Ottavio (Tomas Milian). Despite his title, she’s the one with the money, which he squanders on sex with prostitutes. To demonstrate how little she cares, Pupe makes a bet with her father that she can get a job and fend for herself.
The action, more or less in real time, is confined to only a few rooms of Ottavio’s ornate palazzo. The essentially theatrical material allows director Luchino Visconti to work with an ease that the other three segments lack. Like Ingmar Bergman, Visconti had a distinguished, parallel career in the theater; the casual fluidity of the film making here attests to his comfort with the enclosed, limited situation.
Which is essentially a one-liner comedy of manners with a surprise ending that isn’t much of a surprise. Ottavio is worthless, little better than an aristocratic bauble that Pupe’s father has tied around her neck. Pupe, on the other hand, who practically purrs like one of her kittens, is aware of both men’s weaknesses, and plays them off each other like a virtuoso.
Visconti stages their maneuvers with enviable assurance, blissfully unconcerned that movies are supposed to jump around as much as possible. Each shot is what we need to understand the action, no more, no less. He recognizes that the drama is internal, in every sense, that gratuitous movement would only detract from the effect. He even gets away with introducing several characters, including Ottavio’s lawyer (Romolo Valli) only to have them sit “off-stage,” as it were, in a library, while Pupe and Ottavio converse in her bedroom for most of the running time. (In one of the wittier touches, the lawyer occasionally phones them in the bedroom to remind Ottavio and the viewer that they are still waiting in the library.)
Like Ottavio, Visconti was from an aristocratic background. That makes him intimately familiar with people with too much time and money on their hands. He also knows how to create, only to ignore the rich settings, perfect tailoring, and discreet servants. His camera moves through the gilded halls with the wide-eyed awareness of a native son. It is that insouciance that makes the bitter humor so effective. It’s as if the director winks and says “You see, under the chic, the rich are screwed up too.”