The Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore picked up the best foreign film Oscar in 1989 with Cinema Paradiso, his widely-beloved ode to a movie theater in his native Sicily. This year, Tornatore is positioned to make another run at the Oscar. His new one, Malena, has already picked up a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign film, announced last week. It’s another period piece set in small-town Sicily, a time and place beautifully re-created. And, again like Paradiso, we see the story through the eyes of a boy.Read More “2000 Eyes: Malena”
[originally presented as a program note for the 1983 University of Washington film series “The Epic Tradition in World Cinema”]
“Those who are wretched are nearer to God.” A peasant woman speaks that line early in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, by way of chiding two of her numerous children for giggling at the simpleminded vagrant whose peregrinations intersect the course of the film from time to time. Taken in isolation, the line is open to dispute: are the random peasant types at the beginning of Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff, for instance, imaginably nearer to God than the self-sacrificing governor who places himself (and his family, as it turns out) in jeopardy in their behalf? By reverse token, the line might be invoked as the keynote of any number of kneejerk-liberal tracts, at once patronizing and self-congratulatory, that propose or presume the moral and spiritual superiority of the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Or it might be put in the mouth of a suffering peasant type for the purpose of irony—to nudge us toward an awareness of how religion can serve as “the opiate of the proletariat,” a formula of self-consolation that defangs the spirit of revolution and reform, and thus helps sustain corrupt sociopolitical systems.
Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.
Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.
A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Dessario Tessari (Arrow, Blu-ray)
A Fistful of Dynamite (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray)
Duccio Tessari is not one of the directors known for spaghetti westerns. In fact, he only directed two in his long and successful career, both with Giuliano Gemma (billed as Montgomery Wood) playing against the mercenary expectations of the defining spaghetti western anti-hero. Both make their American home video debut as Blu-ray double feature.
In A Pistol for Ringo (Italy, 1965), Gemma is a wily gunfighter known to all as Angel Face who is released from jail to infiltrate a gang of Mexican bank robbers holding a rancher’s family hostage in their manor home, which they’ve guarded like fortress. Sancho (Fernando Sancho) plays the jolly bandit king who acts like he’d prefer to let everyone live and then has his men drop anyone who gets out of line, but he isn’t shy about executing his hostages as the stand-off drags on, and he targets the lowly Mexican laborers, hardly the actions of the Robin Hood he pretends to be.
Tessario was an uncredited writer on A Fistful of Dollars and the high body count, ruthless killers, double crosses and calculated ambushes seem to be informed, if not outright inspired, by Leone’s film. But while Ringo appears to be a classic heartless mercenary bidding up his services, he turns out to be more of a lovable rogue with a soft spot for women and kids and a loyalty to the good guys.
The title may sound like a serial killer thriller but Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill (Italy, 1966) is a Gothic ghost story with haunting images, grotesque edges, and glorious style. Think of it as Bava’s answer to a Hammer horror, with hysterical superstition and suspicion of outsiders replacing the lurid sexuality of Hammer’s Victorian horrors and Bava’s rich palette setting an altogether more expressionist atmosphere.
Shooting exteriors on location in rural mountain villages of picture-postcard medieval stone dwellings and labyrinthine streets, Bava creates a fairy tale world of an oppressively provincial 19th century village in the grip of a curse. At least that’s the explanation of the townspeople who dismiss the scientific investigation of Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), a coroner from the city called into determine if Irena (Mirella Pamphili), a young woman whose death by impaling opens the film, was murdered or committed suicide. The villagers know—she is the latest victim of a curse upon the village—and do everything they can to drive the coroner and Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), the city investigator, from their insular little village. With the help of Monica (Erika Blanc), who was born in the village but sent away to school and has recently returned, Paul is determined to find the true cause of the inexplicable deaths plaguing the village.
[Originally published in Keyframe]
What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) is celebrated by fans and genre historians alike as one of the masterpieces of giallo. An Italian-German coproduction shot largely in England, it’s directed by Massimo Dallamano, who visualized the stark intensity of Sergio Leone’s arid anti-hero epics as cinematographer of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), and directed salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh (1969) and The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) before turning to giallo.
The international cast includes hunky Italian Fabio Testi (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), German stars Karin Baal (Fassbinder‘s Lili Marleen) as his wife, krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger (Dead Eyes of London) as the police detective, Spanish beauty Cristina Galbó (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) as Testi’s schoolgirl mistress, and American model-turned-actress Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave) as Solange. The lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. All told, it’s one of the most disturbing examples of the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume.
Sure, giallo is notorious for its gruesome displays of bodies (mostly young, female, and scantily clad) sliced, stabbed, hacked, crushed, skewered, and eviscerated, often executed as elaborately choreographed set pieces of grotesque poetry, sometimes simply crude and grotesque. In terms of explicit violent spectacle, What Have You Done to Solange? is restrained compared to the most extreme examples of the genre (I’m looking at you, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi), and compared to the delirious dances of death from Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Dallamano is downright discreet. And yet it is far more unsettling and transgressive than those more explicit spectacles.
On the one hand, What Have You Done to Solange? comes right out of the krimi-inspired plots of a mysterious masked killer hunting down victims and leaving their rent bodies on display to taunt the cops and terrorize the community, with a side of salacious nudity out of the schoolgirl films of Germany and the swinging cheerleader and student nurse films of the U.S. On the other, it is about a killer targeting high school girls and murdering them with a sexual assault out of the Jack the Ripper school of hateful misogyny. Even in the aggressively incorrect sexual politics of the genre, you can’t show that on screen. I don’t know if it is even to Dallamano’s credit that he manages to make abundantly clear the nature of the crime without clinical illustration or gory spectacle, but clarity he achieves when the investigating detective pulls out a B&W crime scene photo with the hilt of a knife clearly jutting out from between the legs of a young victim and a doctor displays an X-ray of a victim’s torso that leaves nothing to the imagination.
Our prime suspect is also our protagonist, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), an Italian physical education teacher in an exclusive British girl’s school. He’s married to a schoolteacher (Karin Baal, introduced as a chilly, severe figure) and sleeping with a student (Cristina Galbó), though the film takes pains to assure us that she is 18 so it’s okay, wink wink, nudge nudge. Testi is the dreamboat teacher that the female students all moon over and the smarmy authority figure who takes his pick of his admirers and he manages to be both magnetic and questionable, especially given his unnatural interest in the first murder scene. It seems more than simple idle curiosity the way he slips through the police tape for a gander at the corpse. (Just an idle observation: for a mere gym teacher he has unprecedented access to crime scenes.) The growing suspicions of Enrico send him on his own investigation with his wife at his side. Baal, initially presented with hard lighting and unflattering hairstyles, is softened with warmer colors, literally letting her hair down to show their growing reconnection. Their mystery-solving partnership is better than marriage counseling, it turns out, and before you know it his adultery is forgiven. An easy out, you might say, but it offers hope and reconciliation in a genre that rarely has either.
As for Solange, her name isn’t even mentioned until the film is half over. But unlike so many gialli which reference hit movies and channel trends with arbitrary (and sometime interchangeable) titles, her identity becomes a mystery of its own and the titular question is key to the murders.
Dallamano stacks up the genre conventions. One character has violent flashes of the murders, something between supernatural premonition and buried traumatic memory (complete with a sickly inventive bit of stylistic ingenuity involving a murder, a nightmare, and a whip-pan transition). There are obligatory shower scenes (complete with a peeping tom more pervy than menacing) next to imagery of Catholic repression and guilt. In one flashback involving an illegal abortion, the scene transforms from shared act of rebellion to grotesque assault, an act of sadism and sexual violation rather than a medical procedure. The filmmakers may have set the film in Britain but the illegal back-alley abortion are purely Italian, as is the Catholic morality. The cliquishness and sexual adventurism of the girls can be seen as an act of defiance, and their “crime” is only a crime in such an oppressive culture. Giallo historian Michael MacKenzie puts the film in a small subgenre of “child gialli,” though unlike such films as Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) or A Whisper in the Dark (1976), these “children” are also sexually active and the objects of salacious interest. It takes the arrival of a mourning parent to remind us that they are indeed someone’s child.
What makes What Have You Done to Solange? so troubling is that you can’t dismiss it as simple, unthinking exploitation. Sure it has plot holes big enough to trap the elephant in the room, but it is unusual and surprising and perversely compelling, with a disturbed twist that gives the salacious and sick predations a psychological grounding. This is not violence sexualized but an angry, vicious assault upon the sexuality of the victims, which gives the film a weird, resonant pay-off. It’s partly what has elevated to the film to classic status among giallo aficionados. You’ve got to have something special to stand out in a genre defined by the gothic grace and dark delirium of Mario Bava, the surreal beauty of Dario Argento, and the nightmare worlds of Lucio Fulci. Solange is exploitation to be sure, but Dallamano doesn’t fetishize or stylize the violence as spectacle. Rather, his film reverberates with a fear of female sexuality and mourning over the loss of innocence. That’s not to say Dallamano transcends the conventions of the genre, but he certainly complicates them.