Indiscretion Of An American Wife

Lawrence Russell

Indiscretion of an American Wife (Stazione Termini, 1953) dir. Vittorio de Sica adapted from the story Terminal Station by Cesare Zavattini dialogue by Truman Capote star. Jennifer Jones (Maria), Montgomery Clift (Giovanni)

The American version was (apparently) severely edited and the title changed without de Sica's permission. Perhaps Selznick, who put up some of the money, thought it would be confused with Coward's Brief Encounter, another love-on-the-run story set in a railway station. There's no denying that "Indiscretion" has more of a bite and gives the film a lurid appeal that it doesn't warrant. Now, maybe if a remake were to be set in an airport with some hot sex and American feminism under examination, well then the title could be made to live up to its sub-text.

As it stands, the "indiscretion" is entirely oblique as per 1950's mores. When Maria (Jones) and her lover Giovanni (Clift) are discovered by the railway police in the first-class compartment of a side-lined carriage, they aren't naked, and they aren't going at it, although the implication is that they were.

The plot is simple and the action is close to real time. Maria, a housewife from Philadelphia with relatives in Rome, decides to return to the States suddenly, hoping to put an end to her brief affair with an Italian academic, Giovanni Doria. Set entirely within the modernist rectilinearity of the Rome railway station, the movement of the crowd is constantly framed by reversing diagonals within the familiar play of light and shadow as favored by the neo-realist cinematographers. It's against this continuously changing chorus of humanity that Maria and Giovanni act out their sexual pantomime.

Giovanni: What am I? Some Guide Book you don't want anymore?

This statement is the key to the understanding of the power reversal in the male-female relationships of the era. America is the dominant power and its women use foreign men like men use women in Italy... evidently. Furious at being walked-out on, it's Giovanni who slaps Maria, not she who slaps him.

In many ways, it's the spectacle, the incidental characters who are merely passing by that carry this drama. Four priests ordering "four cups of tea", a well-dressed woman and her toy dog, singing football fans, soldiers, business men, railway workers... the movement of the public through the marble concourses of the station.

There are two remarkable photographic scenes: one, when Maria and her nephew Paul are taking refuge behind a pillar following the "slap", and two, when Maria and Giovanni are being led to the Station Commissioner's office and their shadows elongate as they ascend the staircase to answer to their "crime".

The social criticism, of course, is based on the hypocrisy of the situation. Italian males like to be seen as lovers but conversely want to be as pure as priests. This paradox of gigolo and moral ceremony is evidenced by the smirking men and the gossip that follows the lovers as they are "arrested" and taken in. The short, humiliating interrogation by the Commissioner is reminiscent of truants facing a school Principal. While he has the wisdom and humanity to let them go, his gesture is really an expulsion, not an acquittal.

Commissioner: What time is your train?

Maria: (low) Eight thirty.

Commissioner: Do you plan to take it?

Maria: (with difficulty) Yes.

Maria and Giovanni are allowed to leave, walk together to the train. He sees her to her compartment, and they exchange more fevered expressions of love eternal. As the train starts to move, Giovanni falls from the door to the platform. A man helps him up, asks "Are you hurt?"

As with all good writing and direction, we are left with only the characters to criticize, not the reality of their actions.

© LR 10/92


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