“Dolce far niente” is an Italian expression that literally means “doing sweet nothing.” It refers to a blissful lazines that, in Italy, is particularly attached to the South. Lucio D’Ambra’s Le Mogli e le Arance may be the best cinematic representation of this phrase to date.
Though the film is often credited as directed by Luigi Serventi, who plays the lead role in the film, Le Mogli e le Arance, it was D’Ambra who in all probability was most responsible for the direction of this movie. Known as an originator of light Italian comedies, at his best D’Ambra recalls Ernst Lubitsch; at his worse, as Marian Lewinsky writes, he is “lacking even the basic ability of conveying content by images, not to mention timing.” Also involved in the production was Luigi Sapelli, a renowned costume designed and art director of the time, whose fingerprints are all over the look of the film, its fabrics and textures.
Le Mogli e le Arance is possibly the best of D’Ambra’s directorial efforts, at least of those that have survived to this day. Taking place in a dull sanatarium, it follows a wealthy young man (Servienti) keeping himself entertained through the company of young ladies, whom he romances and with whom he plays slow-motion mind games. One game in particular, inspired by an old legend stating that soulmates are oranges cut in halves, particularly excites his and the girls’ fantasies.
The film moves at a very slow pace; there’s hardly any narrative here at all. Yet, it is a masterful look at that aforementioned sweet idleness, full of grace: the girls move like ballrinas in choreographes movements, dressed in elegant dresses with lavish, gigantic hats. Further, D’Ambra dares to play with narrative conventions, incorporating dream-sequences and stories and stand-alone shots that exist within the film as singular moments of visual delight.
Although nothing much happens throughout the film, D’Ambra manages to do something quite incredible: as Karl Wratschko says, “he tries to narrate time, time itself, as such, for its own sake: a rare experiment,” many years before similar projects would make their way in mainstream commercial cinema. But while the endeavour may sound boring, Le Mogli e le Arance is anything but: it is a delightful and beautiful sunny revue, with a clever sense of humour. – ★★★★
LE MOGLI E LE ARANCE | 1917, Italy | Directed by – Luigi Serventi, Lucio D’Ambra, Luigi Sapelli / Produced by – Lucio D’Ambra / Written by – Lucio D’Ambra / Cinematography – Giulio Ruffini / Art direction by – Luigi Sapelli / Starring – Luigi Serventi, Myra Terribili, Paolo Wullmann | Running time: 74 mins.