Wednesday, March 6, 2019

For Your Viewing Pleasure: Lo scopone scientifico (English title: The Scientific Cardplayer) (1972)

Lo scopone scientifico, a dark comedy that centers on an intense high-stakes card game between an immensely wealthy couple (Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten) and an immensely poor couple (Alberto Sordi and Silvano Mangano), provides a unique and insightful perspective on the ills of class struggle and the even greater ills of false hope. 

Davis, billed only as "The Millionairess," is a wealthy American obsessed with traveling to different parts of the world to play a popular local card game with a local poor couple.  She advances the couple a million dollars with the objective of winning the money back before the end of the night.  If she loses, the couple can walk away with millions of dollars.  The problem is that she never loses.  Sordi and Mangano's couple, Peppino and Antonia, have played this game with The Millionairess every year for the last eight years.  They spend the entire year honing their skills with the hope that they will, for once, win. 

The Millionairess seems to only do this to torture her poverty-stricken guests, watching it ravage them emotionally and spiritually to be given these big stacks of currency - a fortune that could undoubtedly transform their sad lives - and then have every crisp and shiny bill inexorably slip through their fingers.  The money is irresistible bait laid in a trap by a demonic predator out to devour their souls. 

Everyone in the town, including Peppino and Antonia's five children, follows the game based on status reports from the rich woman's servants.  They are desperate for the native underdogs to clean out the woman (or "the oldie," as they call her).

The story takes a number of clever twists and turns, which keeps this film about four people playing cards fast-moving and exciting.  The Millionairess, who is obsessed with winning, is as emotionally invested in the game as her guests.  Her companion George, bullied by Davis for years, is a shell of a man. 

On paper, Sordi and Mangano's characters are too hopeless and deluded to deserve sympathy, but these are master actors who know how to make an audience care for them.  I found myself hoping beyond hope that they would win and, by the end of the film, I was as emotionally exhausted as the characters themselves.

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