VIVA MARIA! (France/Italy 1965)

2965697145_1_13_xJr3oxcGIn her native France, Brigitte Bardot enjoyed a similar reputation to that enjoyed by, say, Elizabeth Taylor in the Anglo-Saxon world; a great screen actress who also happened to be a great beauty. In the English-speaking world Bardot’s reputation was rather different, more that of a great beauty, idolized by millions of men who had never seen any of her films.

Possibly the only actress to become an international sex symbol without any help from Hollywood. Although “Viva Maria!” was a French film, it was also released in an English-language version, which gave some of those men a chance to see their idol on the screen without worrying about subtitles. The film is based around a similar concept to that in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, that of teaming a famous blonde sex symbol with a brunette equivalent. Like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the original, Bardot and Jeanne Moreau differed not only in colouring but also in their screen persona.

The blondes, Monroe and Bardot, both retained a sort of girlish innocence throughout their careers, whereas the brunettes Russell and Moreau, both several years older than their blonde counterparts, had more of a “sexy older woman” air about them. Although Bardot was 31 when she made this film, she was still often referred to as a “sex kitten” and great play was made of the fact that, in French, her initials BB were pronounced like the word for “baby”. I doubt if anyone ever called Jeanne Moreau a kitten.

The film is set in Central America in 1907. Bardot plays Maria, an Irish revolutionary on the run after blowing up a bridge in a British colony, presumably British Honduras. (Exactly why the interests of Irish nationalism required the destruction of a bridge in a remote part of that territory is never explained). She is befriended by a Parisian actress, also named Maria, who is performing with a travelling circus touring the area, and they cross the border into a neighbouring banana republic, where, after inadvertently inventing striptease, they become caught up in a popular uprising against the country’s dictator.

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Louis Malle, although not part of the “Nouvelle Vague” movement, is today best remembered as the auteur director of serious films like “Le Soufflé au Coeur” and “Au Revoir Les Enfants”, so I was surprised to learn that he was also responsible for a frivolous comedy like this one. There is some satirical content to the film, mostly reflecting France’s own revolutionary, anti-clerical traditions, but nothing too serious. The Catholic Church is shown as a reactionary force on the side of the dictator, who relies heavily on the Holy Inquisition, portrayed as having survived into the first decade of the twentieth century. (In reality the Inquisition was abolished everywhere in Latin America upon independence from Spain). This satire, however, is so over-the-top that it is unlikely to be taken seriously.

Contrary to what some have assumed, this is not a film about the Mexican Revolution; the film, although shot in Mexico, is not actually set there but in the fictitious Republic of San Miguel. Secondly, despite a certain amount of satire this is not a serious film about politics but a light-hearted, slightly bawdy, comedy, the sort of film the “Carry On” team might have made had they turned their attention to Latin American politics. Although if the “Carry On” team had made it the two Marias would have lacked that certain “je ne sais quoi” of Jeanne and Brigitte to say the least. The film owes a lot, in fact, to the charm and sex appeal of its two heroines; it may be a light, frothy romp, but it is a very enjoyable one nevertheless.

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