Portrait of Gina aka Viva Italia (Orson Welles, 1958)

Eclipse LogoUnder contract with ABC-TV to produce a pilot for a weekly television series, Orson Welles created Portrait of Gina, the first episode of a vaguely described travelogue.  The result was a highly unconventional half hour that included interviews with Vittorio De Sica and Rosanno Brazzi, Anton Karas’ The Third Man theme, Welles’ characteristic asides and cheeky banter, and a decidedly mixed representation of both Italian culture and Italy’s reigning sex symbol Gina Lollobrigida.  Thought lost for decades and suppressed by Lollobrigida following its first public screening at the 1986 Venice Film Festival, Portrait of Gina is a curious study of a country and culture close to Welles’ heart.

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In 1957, Orson Welles managed to wrangle $200,000 from ABC-TV’s president Leonard H. Goldenson to film the pilot to a weekly series.  Welles was decidely vague about his intentions for the program, but ABC desperately needed original programming and were prepared to consider all kinds of “strange ideas”.  The result, Portrait of Gina, manages to fall somewhere between his former ITV travelogue Around the World with Orson Welles and his innovative and experimental Desilu pilot The Fountain of Youth.  Like all of his television work, Welles is omnipresent throughout the episode, acting as a charismatic tour guide (or detour guide) to the viewer, ready with a witty remark or a special guest.  He propels Portrait of Gina and compels attention by his larger than life persona.

Portrait of Gina is a strange entity.  If anything, Welles may be too present in the film.  His appearances frequently feel interventionist; his interviews feel like he’s shaping answers to suit his purposes.  Perhaps this is because Portrait of Gina seems to recall The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) in Welles’ effort to talk up his meeting with Lollobrigida while withholding her presence until the last third.  (The presence of The Third Man‘s zither music functioning as a theme for Welles in Portrait of Gina also helps.)  Yet, for all its excesses and shortcomings, the episode has a peculiar charm, managing to feel ahead of its time and anachronistic all at once.

Network heads hated Portrait of Gina and Welles abandoned the idea of selling his project elsewhere.  In fact, Welles abandoned his 16mm print at the Ritz Hotel in Paris when he moved out, the reels remaining there until it was rediscovered in the early 1980s.  It screened at the 1986 Venice Film Festival and Gina Lollobrigida, seeing it there for the first time, was so unhappy with her portrayal that she brought successful legal action blocking its distribution.  One can hardly blame Lollobrigida’s offense, as her few minutes of interview time is spent complaining about Italian taxes and a fickle public rooting for her downfall.  Portrait of Gina saw a few airings on European television but has never had an authorized release.  With the show circulating on the internet, it’s time for meaningless containment to give way to practical realities and for an official release of the pilot to find its way to hard media.

Credits:  Film Threat’s Bootleg Files always provide insightful reviews of lost or forgotten works and their write-up for Portrait of Gina is no exception.

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