At the perfect intersection between comedy, melodrama and romance stands a film that has been seemingly obscured entirely from history, but is surprisingly one of the most moving and captivating films of its era. The Peddler and the Lady (Italian: Campo de’ fiori), which was directed by Mario Bonnard (who collaborated with half a dozen screenwriters in the process of its conception), is a charming comedy-of-manners that dares to be different in the ways that matter. The story of the love triangle between a fishmonger, a fruit seller and an exotic Eastern European divorcee is very straightforward, but yet it often feels like it is ahead of its time, with its story being profoundly modern, both in its message and the more superficial sensibilities that occur on the surface. Far from revolutionary, but still entertaining in a way that feels like it is drawn from a place of genuine human empathy, The Peddler and the Lady is an absolute triumph of both form and content, a deeply moving film that is aware of the fact that a comedy can evoke laughter without making light of serious situations, and through tempering the tone and atmosphere, Bonnard is capable of touching on a range of interesting ideas, each one developing into an enthralling series of moments that make up the foundation for this sentimental but enduring comedy that remains one of the most refreshing and entertaining films of its era, and one that certainly warrants more attention as a forgotten masterpiece of Italian cinema.
The simplicity is what makes The Peddler and the Lady so wonderfully enthralling, and the director wastes very little time getting to the point in showcasing precisely what it is that makes these stories so compelling. One must remember that this film was produced in the middle of the Second World War, and therefore has to be viewed through the lens of not only being a comedy, but also one made at a time of great social and political upheaval. Italian neo-realism had started to manifest in various works, but it was not fully operational until a few years later – but one has to imagine that a film like this played a part, at least in terms of showing that a very simple story could be considered compelling without being flippant about important issues. Bonnard was far too invested in creating a film that touches on the deepest recesses of everyday life (albeit in the form of a comedy – had it been a drama, there’s very little doubt that The Peddler and the Lady would have been even marginally as successful, since this plot inherently lends itself to humour) to resort to trite melodrama, instead choosing to keep the overt sentimentality to moments where it mattered the most, key scenarios in which heightened emotions can substantially contribute to the overall story. It’s this ability to find the natural ebb and flow between humour and sadness that makes the film so intriguing, and the director draws us into this world, placing us right at the heart of the Campo de’ fiori on a sweltering summer afternoon, where we bear witness to the trials and tribulations of a fascinating group of characters.
Everything we encounter in The Peddler and the Lady somehow orbits around the individuals whose stories are being told, with the title itself prioritizing the duality of two of the main characters (although a deeper reading may lead one to believe that “the peddler” and “the lady” could refer to any of the three characters in tandem), and indicating that the premise is ultimately always going to lead back to one of these people, as well as their steadily shifting relationship with any of the others. Aldo Fabrizi, Caterina Boratto and Anna Magnani are the three primary characters, and they’re all magnificent. Something that Bonnard manages to capture is the fact that a great comedy can only come from characters that are different enough to stand out from one another, but similar enough to work together, at least in a way that can be played for both comedy and drama in different situations. The breakneck pace at which this film move is captured perfectly by the actors, who work efficiently with the screenplay, which contains an intimidating amount of dialogue, which needed to not only be convincing, but also incredibly funny, all at the same time. This film was not a breakthrough role for any of the actors, since they were all relatively well-established by the time they appeared in this film (although this was a considerable addition to their already impressive careers), but it feels like we’re seeing a trio of revelatory performances, which is only increased by how each one of them has remarkable chemistry with one another, proving that even the most simple of characters can be effective when played by great actors and framed by a gifted filmmaker.
Something that we simply cannot disregard in relation to The Peddler and the Lady is how this is a film fueled equally by a very pointed approach to exploring the human condition in a way that was humorous, as well as being a deeply humane and compassionate story that manages to find gravitas where it was least expected. The progressive nature of the story is one of the most significant elements – here we have a story of love between three people, two of which are women who are fiercely independent and don’t depend on the validation of any of the male characters to exist. Conversely, the male characters, while possessing traits of being womanizers, are not portrayed as entirely unlikable or chauvinistic, but instead as products of their time that eventually receive their comeuppance once they realize the importance of looking beyond their own perspective. There’s a certain gravitas that Bonnard brings to the proceedings that is difficult to overlook, a kind of nuance that feels far more authentic than perhaps can be justified within this otherwise wacky, off-the-wall comedy. There’s a seriousness that comes about organically, especially in those moments where the film is touching on deeper issues. It is lent a great deal of generosity by a director with a very keen interest in exploring the subject matter to its fullest extent, and the final product is a magnificently charming and insightful film with a lot of wits, and an even more immense sense of heartfulness.
It often feels like in order to be seen as successful, a comedy needs to justify its existence, being either wildly original or possessing the most hilarious jokes and eccentric characters. However, The Peddler and the Lady proves to value of nothing more than a story well told in the creation of something entertaining and insightful. Bonnard has a lot of fun with this material, but the gravity of the story and its implications are certainly not lost on him, as he is actively pursuing a deeper and more provocative meaning behind the idea of romance. The film is genuinely enjoyable, but it doesn’t take its more complex underpinnings for granted – and while Bonnard doesn’t claim to be offering any solutions to the problems he weaves into the plot (instead constructing the film as an observational piece), he does showcase a deep respect for the material and the ideas that it represents. Perhaps it is slightly rough around the edges, and many of its ideas feel like they’re plucked from a very different kind of film, but The Peddler and the Lady is truly marvellous, a spellbinding and endearing comedy that never fails to make us laugh and think, sometimes even at the exact same time, which is all the more reason to admire this wonderful but sadly underpraised film, which deserves so much more than it has received so far.