Hooked on Film rating:
People in Italian Neo-realism films don’t usually take vacations; they barely have any money to even get on by, and Vittorio De Sica’s next to last movie deviates only very slightly from his usual topic. While not as brutally draining of hope as his 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (I Ladri di Bicicleta), and not quite as emotionally powerful as his 1970 The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini), A Brief Vacation is both a return to his his core topic, and a welcome departure as well.
The movie focuses on Clara Mataro (Florinda Bolkan), a woman working in a factory, providing for her disabled husband Renato. At the opening of this film, Clara is at her last rope. Nothing works properly in her house and on top of that she is expected to go to work under long commutes and still put food on her family’s plate. Things take a turn for the worse when she starts fainting at work; a visit to the doctor discloses that she has become tubercular and must cease work at once and get some much needed recovery.
This doesn’t bode well for her family, who view Clara as a money-making machine, and an exchange with a young man who is also at the doctors leads to accusations of infidelity bordering on spousal abuse from her husband. Still, against her husband’s wishes, she takes the decision and boards a train that takes her to the mountains of Italy far north to start a new chapter of mental and physical recovery.
Once there she befriends an interesting group of women: one, a famous singer (played by Adriana Asti) with an advanced stage of cancer who maintains a strong front while collapsing on the inside, a trophy wife (Teresa Gimpera), and a young woman who won’t eat. Clara, herself a victim of a hard life, slowly finds her footing in ways she could not have while living with her family. Somehow, these wounded women see a subtle strength that Clara herself probably didn’t know she possessed and come to depend on her for support when they themselves have to confront their inner pain.
The one thing that lingers a tad plastic in the movie is that the young man she met at the doctor’s office also comes to visit for an indefinite stay. This seems a tad fabricated for the purpose of romantic drama, (and for some reason it made me think of how romance also happened to Cecilia, another lonely woman who escapes reality by via of a movie heartthrob in Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo) However, this new man also works to Clara’s favor: she discovers passion, and with that, her own beauty. De Sica, however, doesn’t go the route of giving her a makeover, and Bolkan is marvelous in depicting the subtle nuances that she herself is perhaps more confident than she initially let on. Perhaps an actress with less presence may have required this treatment — typical of Hollywood — but Bolkan, it’s always there, flickering, like an inner light.
It’s because of this that Clara’s slow evolution from battered, sick housewife to a woman who is becoming more herself even when she may have to return home when her family comes to fetch for her, that one realizes just how strong and independent she really is. A Brief Vacation may not have all the answers into resolving her quandary as of what comes after recovery, but as a character study of a woman coming back from the edge of darkness, A Brief Vacation is a movie that while has its feet firmly entrenched in its Neo-realist roots also offers a core element: a glimmer of hope. You couldn’t ask for more evolution than that in a director.