Similarly, playing a blind man simply means that the actor has to pretend that his eyes don't work. It doesn't mean, unless he is wearing dark glasses, that he can't use his eyes, that he can't use them to create a dramatic effect. It gets even easier when the actor wears dark glasses, as Jamie Foxx demonstrated when he played - and won an Oscar for playing - Ray Charles in the movie Ray.
Now imagine the sentimental possibilities of the following plot: a young man is tasked with accompanying a blind former military officer on a journey. Not your typical blind man, the former officer is arrogant and offensive, driven by an insatiable attraction to women, whom he can smell from a distance. He tasks the young man to be his eyes, to tell him what every woman within range of his nose looks like. What potential for any decent satirical novelist or filmmaker! If handled carefully, the results have every reason to be eminently readable or watchable.
Anyone who has seen the film Scent of a Woman (1992) with Al Pacino will recognize the plot. Long before Pacino played Lt. Colonel Frank Slade, however, the plot was first used by the Italian novelist Giovanni Arpino, best known as the author of the novel Un delitto d'onore that Pietro Germi turned into the classic film Divorce Italian Style in 1962. Arpino's title for the novel was The Darkness and the Honey (Il Buio e il Miele), which was first made into an Italian film called Profumo du Donna in 1974 and eventually Scent of a Woman. Not having read the novel, I don't know to what extent Dino Risi and Ruggero Maccari, who adapted it as Profumo di Donna, kept faith with it. Bo Goldman, who wrote the script for Scent of a Woman, clearly took much greater liberties with Arpino's original story. I suspect that Arpino isn't to blame for the more blatantly distasteful aspects of both adaptations.
I had heard of Profumo di Donna since it was shown in New York in the '70s but never had a chance to see it until recently. It is better than the American film in two ways, one major and one minor. The two films provided opportunities for two great actors, Vittorio Gassman and Al Pacino, to give award-winning performances. Gassman won three European awards, including a Golden Palm at Cannes, for best actor in 1975 and Pacino won the Academy Award (the Golden Bowling Trophy) for Best Actor in 1993. But the roles that these two actors play are, like the films in which they play them, worlds apart.
The American film is, like its protagonist, seriously impaired in its characterizations and its acting. It concerns a young man (played by Chris O'Donnell, a lifesize wet blanket) from a working class family in Oregon who is enrolled in an exclusive boys' school back east. Rather than go home for Thanksgiving, which he can't afford, he answers an ad to be a caregiver for the long weekend to an infirm Lieutenant Colonel. Once he has introduced himself to the Colonel, the young man discovers, once the Colonel's family is gone, that the old fart has planned a trip to New York City where, he announces to the boy, he intends to stay at the Waldorf, eat a fine meal, sleep in a magnificent bed, make love to a beautiful woman and then blow his brains out. The young man goes along with this escapade, since the Colonel is paying for everything and has assured him he will be returned to Baird (the name of the boys' school) in plenty of time to resume his studies.
The Italian film, which has flaws of its own but which is at least original, concerns a young officer cadet named Giovanni who is assigned to escort disabled captain Fausto from Turin to Naples via Genoa and Rome. Fausto, who lost his sight and his left forearm in a peacetime explosion, decides to call Giovanni "Ciccio" (baby fat), is always impeccably dressed and is a menace to attractive women, whom he can smell from a distance. And it isn't their "perfume" he smells, but "l'odore di femina." He is going to Naples to visit an old army comrade who was blinded in the same accident. Unbeknownst to Giovanni, he plans to persuade his blind comrade to go through with a suicide pact.
The script, by Dino Risi (who directed the film) and Ruggero Maccari, is noteworthy in the extent to which it goes to make the blind captain as thoroughly unsympathetic as possible while still expecting us to be interested in his fate. In one scene, Fausto plays a trick on an unsuspecting young nun. Hiding his intact right arm inside his jacket, he tells her he needs help using the toilet. She accompanies him to the bathroom where she has to unzip his fly and hold his penis while he urinates. While a look of undisguised satisfaction spreads across Fausto's face, the nurse closes her eyes, perhaps wishing she were blind. It's like something out of American Pie.
One could argue that Fausto is out to alienate everyone, including his beloved Anna, an old flame, in preparation for his suicide. When he's confronted with Anna in Naples, who loves him despite his injuries, Fausto becomes genuinely cruel to her. Knowing that she loves him makes it that much harder for Fausto to drive her away. I don't buy this interpretation wholeheartedly, especially since I see no reason why everyone along the way from Turin to Naples has to put up with this impossible man's antics merely because he is blind. Giovanni does it only because he is under orders.
The captain's intolerable behavior toward everyone around him is matched by his self-deprecation. He uses his blindness both as a weapon and as a shield behind which he can hide. We don't know until he arrives in Naples for his rendezvous with his old - and blind - comrade why he burned all of his bridges along the way. Because he finds his blindness unacceptable, he has decided to die. But in failing to carry out his own death sentence - and be his own executioner - Fausto realizes that even a life without sight is preferable to total darkness in death.
Clearly, American film audiences are always having to be reassured that even the most despicable worm can be turned, that Scrooge will always have a change of heart, and that the world, though temporarily upset, will always be put right. In Scent of a Woman, the story refuses to end with the boy's foiling the Colonel's attempt to "blow his brains out," even after Pacino's cri de coeur, "I'm in the dark here!" Hollywood had to redeem him somehow, with a ludicrous trial scene at the boys' school in which the Colonel defends the boy's integrity when he refuses to "snitch" on his classmates. Stanley Kauffmann called it "the mustiest kind of old-fashioned hokum."(1)
Profumo di Donna's blind captain is granted no such reprieve. He finds that he can't go through with his end of the suicide pact - he shoots his blind comrade to death but doesn't have the requisite nerve to turn the gun on himself. Giovanni and Anna secure his escape to an abandoned church in a cemetery. Giovanni, having done his duty, departs, leaving Anna alone with Fausto. The film ends with her guiding him out of the cemetery to the strains of Armando Trovaioli's syrupy music.
Al Pacino saw the role of Lt. Colonel Frank Slade as a gift. But I think he failed to fully realize the man. As I mentioned before, playing a blind character relieves an actor of having to use his eyes in his performance. So Pacino assumes the same glassy stare in scene after scene.
Vittorio Gassman, however, chose to use his eyes in some surprising ways in his performance. He is always seeming to concentrate on trying to see. (Pacino acts as if he was born blind instead of suddenly finding himself deprived of sight.) For example, Gassman often resorts to slightly crossing his eyes. There is a somewhat strange moment, when he asks for the blessing of a priest in Rome (2), when he looks up after the blessing has been given and gazes intently before him, as if he is trying to force his eyes to clear, somehow expecting his sight to be miraculously restored.
But if there is one aspect of Profumo di Donna that makes it unarguably superior to its sequel, it's in Dino Risi's impeccable eye for locations. In scene after scene, Risi places his actors in outdoor cafés or on terraces by the sea. Alas, the cinematography of these splendid locations, by Claudio Cirillo, uses far too much diffusion, as if everything is covered in the "honey" in the title of Giovanni Arpino's novel.
I'm guessing that Profumo di Donna overemphasizes Fausto's predatory sexuality. But it is only when he is in the company of young women that Fausto seem to be having a good time. Dino Risi's alteration of the novel's title certainly reveals the extent to which he was counting on an audience full of Brunos, who would cheer Fausto's apparently insatiable lechery.
Advocates for the rights of the disabled might argue that only a truly disabled person can properly impersonate a disabled character. But as long as there are actors looking for awards and critics foolishly prepared to give them one - or several - we can expect many more films in which unimpaired actors take on such juicy roles.
(1) The New Republic, January 25, 1993.
(2) The priest is played (uncredited) by the ubiquitous Vernon Dobtcheff.