In the monologue that opens TWBR, Squarcio talks about two other men who he grew up with: Salvatore, who stills fishes, albeit legally; and Gaspare, who went on to join the Coast Guard. These two are integral to the story. Salvatore is a legit fisherman who barely makes enough to feed his family. He’s also a man of some principle, as he is estranged from his father, a dynamite fisherman like Squarcio. As the commander of the local Coast Guard, Gaspare is charged with catching cheats like Squarcio. Gaspare is a good cop, but derives no joy from the thought of arresting his friend.
From the start, Yves Montand presents Squarcio as a man whose morals are hard to pin down. He’s aware that he is breaking the law, but knows that he would be in poverty if he fished with a net. The other fishermen and the Coast Guard know what he does, but choose to turn a blind eye to it. For his part, Squarcio is sympathetic to the plights of the others. An early scene shows them trying to get a decent price for their meager catch from the local merchant. He coldly low-balls them, but then along comes Squarcio with his big catch. He forces the merchant to give the others their price in order to get his as well.
Despite it’s stunning scenery and color, The Wide Blue Road belongs to the great tradition of post-war Italian realism films like The Bicycle Thief and Roma: Open City. These people live from day to day, and poverty is just a way of life. If the weather doesn’t co-operate, they can’t go out and fish. If they can’t fish, they make no money.
Squarcio’s home life gives us a little glimpse into why he lives the way he does. He’s tender and loving with his wife Rosetta (Alida Valli) and daughter Diana (Federica Ranchi). His young sons Donino and Bore fish with him. Squarcio doesn’t seem to have the same money issues as the others, and this is why he refuses to go “legit”. The film flashes back to his courtship of Rosetta, and shows him promising to give her everything. His hard-headedness therefore isn’t just greed – He wants what’s best for his family.
One recurring theme that runs through TWBR is the idea of different generations butting up against each other. Squarcios’ sons work with him every day, and they both love him, but they are different. Bore, the youngest, believes that his Papa can do no wrong. The older one, Donino, is starting to give off signals that he doesn’t approve of his father breaking the law. The acrimony that Salvatore feels towards his father is due to the fact that the old man doesn’t fish honestly. There’s also a sub-plot about a romance between Diana and Salvatore’s son Renato (Terence Hill).
Then one day, everything gets turned upside down. Squarico’s old buddy Gaspare gets transferred and is replaced by a new man who is not inclined to look the other way. What’s worse, he brings with him a new patrol boat that can outrun Squaricos’. The new man Riva is friendly, but there is no mistaking his intent. Squarcio is cocky and brazenly lies about his operation, but deep down, he knows that the game has changed now.
A new motor temporarily restores the balance of power to Squarcio, but he can’t resist showing it off in an informal little race with Riva. If anything, this exchange hardens the resolve of the cop. Why does Squarcio throw this in the face of the one man who can ruin him, rather than just sitting on his advantage? My thought is that while Squarcio is far from dumb, he is also foolishly proud and has a false sense of security. Nothing has ever happened to me before, has it?
Then one day, the patrol boat manages to sneak up on Squarcio and his sons as they fish in a sheltered cove. Trapped, there is no choice but to sink the boat, sending his moneymaker to the bottom of the sea. With no boat to fish with, and a new motor to pay for, he now faces bankruptcy.
It’s not hard to watch TWBR and discern what its politics are. In the early scene with the fish merchant, Pontecorvo makes no effort to portray him as anything but a ruthless capitalist. The other fishermen (led by Salvatore) talk about the “co-op” they are putting together, where the men will pool their resources to buy a new fridge, which will eliminate the need for the merchant. Squarcio is openly dismissive of the co-op – He does just fine as is. In his own way, he’s like the evil merchant.
With his back against the wall financially, Squarico now begins to test the goodwill he has amongst the other fishermen. He buys the impounded boat of Salvatore’s father, out bidding Salvatore in the process, and it’s telling to see how the others disdainfully flow past him as they leave the auction.
As TWBR nears its conclusion, a sad inevitability sets in. Squarcio is too much in love with his way of life to entertain thoughts of going legit. There’s a scene near the end where he learns he is going to be a father again, and he is immediately swept away by thoughts of how he can expand his operation with his 3 sons. He doesn’t even notice Rosetta quietly weeping at the realization that this man of hers isn’t ever going to change. The finale is really the only one that would have been just for this story, as a man who put making money ahead of everything realizes what he has wrought, and a new generation steps up to do what needs to be done.