Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review: Bell' Antonio (1949) by Vitaliano Brancati

Poster for the film of Bell' Antonio
"What begins as farce ends in tragedy."  I don't know where that quote is from or who said it, but it's an apt description of Bell' Antonio, a tragicomic Italian novel that reads like a Fellini film brought to literary life. Not, however, the playfully surrealist Fellini of 81/2 and Juliet of the Spirits, but the earlier Fellini of I Vitteloni who took a harsh look at the preening shallowness of young men in a small Italian town. It's no surprise that this novel brings to mind a film since Brancati, the author, was also a noted screenwriter, collaborating several times with Luigi Zampa, one of Italy's top comedy directors of the 1950s and '60s.

The central character is Antonio Magnano, a young man so handsome, so beautiful, women are poleaxed with lust simply by looking at him. Antonio is the only child of an upper middle-class couple from Catania in Sicily, and when he returns home in 1934 after spending several years in Rome, his father, Alfio, hopes that the social connections he made with politically important people in the Fascist government will help the family's fortunes. Things seem to pay off in spades when a marriage is arranged for Antonio with Barbara Puglisi, the beautiful daughter of one of Catania's most notable families.  Three years into the marriage rumors start to circulate that Antonio isn't quite the virile creature everyone assumed he was, and from this point things start to go pear-shaped for Antonio and the Magnanos.

The first third of the novel has a comic tone as Brancati gives us scathing portraits of Fascist politicos and stuffed shirt Sicilian bourgeoisie. The star character here is Alfio, a bellowing, blustering, boastful exemplar of Sicilian machismo. Alfio lives for family honour and pride, and when the Magnano name starts to be dragged through the mud, his reactions are both hilarious and, by the end of the novel, pitiable. And Alfio is only one of several striking characters Brancati creates. Antonio's Uncle Gildo, a disillusioned priest, is almost as memorable, as is Antonio's best friend, Edoardo.

Brancati's skill at characterization is matched by his fluid, natural way with dialogue. As I read the novel I found I was hearing the dialogue rather than just reading it; I could imagine particular Italian actors reciting the words I was reading. It's no wonder Brancati had success as a screenwriter.

The last third of the novel has a darker tone as WW II sweeps over Sicily, and Catania is reduced to rubble and penury. It's here that Brancati makes explicit the point of his novel, which is that the middle class obsession with honour, social standing, political opportunism, machismo, and family pride meant that a blind eye was turned to the rise of Fascism and Italy's disastrous march to war. And even though Bell' Antonio ends on a down note, Brancati's earthy, robust writing style make his novel a memorably pleasurable experience.

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