This cannot be approached like other Nona films: Scala Quaranta, sensing our critical apparatus even when our advance is silent, hastily retreats into the undergrowth. Its enigmatic figure belies a hardy creature, one that can survive in a range of unpigeonholed habitats. It has rarely been seen in captivity (underwhelmed by early screenings, it shrank from view), and a firm category for its confusing silhouette proves elusive. Strong-arm critics throw it in with Nona's 'Casa' stage, the period of films made before his entry into the global bloodstream with the Bond/Barthes/bebop melange of Sigh Your Name (1966) and the subsequent theft of international hearts with Wine For Song (1967).
Scala Quaranta at first seems set for the kind of Old Country whimsy that delights outsiders: we follow a small god-fearing family as they work, eat and play in a small town in central Italy, with a beguiling lack of glamour. Violent routine prevails. The details of their lives are worked out exactly, and yet petty squabbles and jolly argument are forces that push and pull the day. Mamma (Alberta D'Agostini) is the sun of the house, never resting, except to play cards. The family sit at hands nightly, gambling for small amounts. A slow pace is thus established, seeming unbreakable. But then, in a delightful scene of creeping significance, drama intervenes.
One night, when asked to cut the deck, youngest son Beppe (the delightfully podgy Paolo Rossi) turns over a joker. This is seen as good luck. The family laugh, calling the boy fortunate. He denies this, suggesting that he has a special skill. When given a second opportunity, he does so again, against the odds. The family tease and hug him all the more. Pappa (Giancarlo Bianchi) bets him a week of chores that he can't do it again; but once more, Beppe cuts the deck and finds a joker. The family erupt. Amid the laughter, Mamma stops, and tells Pappa to shuffle the deck properly. He does so, at length, as the other brothers and sisters lean in. When Beppe cuts the deck and finds a joker once more, Mamma screams and crosses herself. She shakes Beppe, asking him how he is performing this trick, and accuses Pappa of fashioning a cheat. But they deny it vehemently, and Beppe, now upset, sits silently. When Mamma thrusts the deck in front of him once more, he at first refuses to cut; but under a barrage of shouts, he sullenly does so, drawing a joker again.
This just does not happen. The family argue the significance through the night, periodically finding new decks to offer Beppe. When he cuts, he finds a joker every time. After twenty-five consecutive jokers, they stop. This is no quirk. Meaning must be found. A priest, a doctor, a man of high learning, all react differently, all equally unhelpful. Mamma cleans ecstatically, she throws out belongings, domestic sacrifice, offerings; she spends money in tears, buying new decorations and trinkets to hang around Beppe's bed, his door, his neck. Are we saving the child from Fate or is Fate the child? Neighbours close their doors, but is it to the family's intertwining with Kismet or Mamma's apocalyptic euphoria? Some weeks the family give generously on a Sunday, some weeks they stay at home, the correct course yet to be found.
Throughout, Nona skirts with delicious indecision, never allowing the viewer to completely sympathise with or against anyone. The whole affair seems simultaneously ridiculous and staggeringly significant. Beppe is a proto-Damien and/or fearfully abused, Mamma a superstitious sadist and/or a brave matriarch. Only Pappa is the same in every reading, emasculated and pale, haunted by his own inability to act. The central mystery about whether the jokers are a clever trick or a supernatural sign is never explained, and the family drifts into the shell-shock of a self-imposed exile, not remembering what the question ever was, but searching the walls for an answer.
Scala Quaranta Directed by Beppe Nonna Produced by Gilberto Moretti Written by Beppe Nonna, Astrid Luna Starring Alberta D'Agostini, Paolo Rossi, Giancarlo Bianchi, Rosa Bianchi
Cino Del Duca/Janus Films 144 mins Release Date UK: Oct 1963/ US: Jan 1964 Tagline: None