In Pupi Avati‘s exquisite Italian picture, The Best Man (1997), the narrative unfolds on the last day of 1899 when a young woman called Francesca (Ines Sastre) is expected to marry by parental arrangement an unappealing man. By no means does she love him, but to cancel the wedding would bring scandal and financial disaster to the family, and so Francesca goes through with it. Except that she falls in love at first sight with Angelo (Diego Abatantuono), one of the groom’s best men, and in her heart, she avers, he is the one she marries. Separated for years from a paramour of his own, heavy-hearted, self-doubting Angelo finds Francesca a real temptation and in truth cannot really condone the marriage, but he doesn’t condemn it either. The groom, after all, is his friend, albeit that friendship is obliterated once the groom learns of his new wife’s affection for Angelo. At length the wedding is seen to have been a mockery, but the fin de siècle arrives without Francesca being in the arms of “the best man” she assuredly loves. I will not reveal, however, the movie’s ending.
The fin de siècle—i.e., the end of the century—is important here. The characters gleefully look forward to the 1900s. Because she rebels against her arranged marriage, against the tradition of marrying not out of love but out of mere duty or habit, Francesca unwittingly behaves like a bona fide child of the new century. She represents a coming change of values. Ironically, the only person in the film who believes in marital Love is an ostensible lunatic, one of Francesca’s aunts. Curiously, Francesca seems to absorb this “lunacy,” to become crazy herself, and yet in fact she is eminently sane. Celibate now that her husband has apparently had the marriage annulled, she receives refuge in a country church and teaches Catholic schoolchildren (the clergy are good to her; there is no anticlericalism in this film). No doubt loneliness emerges in this kind of life, but so does sanity. More or less there is health here, and there are lunacies the West of the twentieth century will sweep away. (But the characters are foolishly optimistic. One man, after all, states it will be a century without war.)
The Best Man boasts a sensitive and sophisticated script, and its cast is very winning.