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December 21, 2011

Movie Review: Il Cappotto (aka The Overcoat, 1952)

Directed by Alberto Lattuada

Reviewed by Greg Goodsell

In this adaptation of the Nikolai Gogol short story, Carmine De Carmine (Renato Rascel) is a nebbish-of-all-nebbishes city clerk put upon at every turn in his small Italian town. Berated by his employers, nagged by his neighbors in the building where his squalid flat is located and begged by the less fortunate to put in a good word for them at the mayor's office, De Carmine has little to look forward to. His shabby overcoat, his sole creature comfort against the harsh winter winds finally falls to pieces and his modest means precludes him from buying a replacement. That is, until he overhears a bribery scheme and tells his boss, who gives him a sizable advance. Going to his tailor, a grand fur-trimmed overcoat is made for him. Now brimming with confidence – but still dogged by inescapable bad luck, De Carmine gets drunk at the mayor's New Year' Eve Party, has his coat stolen by a mugger and falls ill with pneumonia and dies.

Buy Il Cappotto on DVD

But De Carmine is not out of the picture just yet. During a speech given by the mayor to dedicate a new building, De Carmine's carriage-drawn coffin upstages the ceremony. Even worse, a ghostly presence begins to pester the residents of the town, who pulls at their coats with the plaintive cry of “I want my overcoat!” De Carmine's ghost confronts the flustered mayor, but quite unlike the vengeful wraiths to populate Italian films in the Sixties, De Carmine uses his otherworldly status to set things aright and give his all-too-brief life meaning.

Il Cappotto is a ghost story worlds' away from the usual Italian spooker. De Carmine, while beleaguered is not entirely a victim; he has a habit of walking into rooms without knocking, overhearing the mayor's clandestine phone call to his mistress. Comically inept, he records the peripheral comments of a meting in lieu of writing down the actual minutes. He also puts a bit too much stock in the value of a good overcoat. Shorn of his shabby jacket earlier in the film, he spends his life savings on a seasonal garment only to learn that he's still the same man underneath. Robbed of his prize possession, he belatedly discovers that worldly possessions have little value, and uses his spectral presence for the good of others. Contrast this will all the other ghosts in other films who come to avenge petty wrongdoing.

With its cold weather and story involving the divide between the very rich and the very poor, Il Cappotto draws certain parallels with Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol”. There is the ghost who appears out of the past who warns the Scrooge-like mayor to mend his ways. Whether things are truly set on the right course, however is left unresolved at the film's fadeout. The final shot of the film owes a large debt to the films of Charlie Chaplin. Truly, Il Cappotto is a heartfelt morality tale and a true classic of Italian cinema.

Raro Video is doing their best to export films that have henceforth remained only in Italy to set before an appreciative international audience. The black-and-white films shows its age in spite of Raro's painstaking restoration, but in this case, the aged look of the film adds to the atmosphere. There is the expected booklet jam-packed with information; deleted scenes presented without audio; an interview with screenwriter and director Angelo Pasquini and audio commentary by Flavio de Bernardinis, professor of film criticism at the University La Sapienza of Rome. The arrival of this warm and wonderful DVD in the waning days of December to this writer came as a most delightful present set under the Christmas tree!

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