FEATURING: Sergio Castellitto, Francesca Dellera, Petra Reinhardt
PLOT: A nightclub pianist drops everything—his job, kids, beloved dog—to shack up with a mysterious woman who randomly enters his life, pursuing an alternately playful and carnal relationship involving, at various points, a paralysis-induced-erection, breast-feeding at St. Faustino’s shrine, storks, and whimso-sadism.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The plot description gives a hint, I suspect. Marco “La Grande Bouffe” Ferreri revisits themes of food, sex, and love, albeit with a (comparatively) light-hearted touch this time around. The movie’s tone veers strangely between Dirty Dancing and 37º2 le matin (Betty Blue), as the mood shifts from maudlin to passionate to absurd—all while late ’80s hits (OMG Milli Vanilli!) randomly crop up on the soundtrack.
COMMENTS: Marco Ferreri, Italy’s foremost disgruntled auteur, has a knack for drama that hovers around the darker side of aimless. Dillinger is Dead brings meandering film into the realm of the surreal, with its protagonist just puttering around his apartment until a dramatic finale. La Grande Bouffe tells the tale of the un-tragic deaths of four well-heeled professionals. In The Flesh, his penultimate cinematic release, Ferreri takes on the art crowd with a shouting kind of mumble-core. Over the course of the movie, strange things befall our protagonist, a singing, piano-and kazoo-playing performer who has a lot going for him that he throws away.
Paolo (Sergio Castellitto) takes his children to a natural history museum where his personal foibles are on display. He rages (at the animatronic dinosaurs) after he’s told that his estranged wife, a civil servant, won’t allow his son to have a first communion. (Here we see the conflict between Italy’s communist elements and its Catholic ones). At work the next evening (afternoon? seems like a lot of people have just started drinking early), we meet Francesca (Francesca Dellera), Europe’s melancholy answer to the “manic pixie dream girl.” Abandoning his post at the club, his obligation to a sick friend, and his child-support payments, Paolo spends some heady days at his remote beach-front cottage. The story becomes strange when, upon him failing to achieve potency one day, Francesca uses a massage technique that leaves him powerless to move, albeit able to oblige sexually.
The Flesh unsettlingly combines the genres of romantic-dramedy and symbolist screed, all to an incongruous pop-rock soundtrack. Francesca, right on the heels of an abortion, falls for the charmingly arrogant piano man, if only because she finds him so different from the mellow young guru she shacked up with before. Having trapped Paolo in stiff paralysis, she only spends time with him to feed him and make love, sometimes simultaneously. Otherwise, she’s out observing the recurring stork metaphor, at one point meeting up with a woman breast-feeding a pair of twins. Violence vs. sex also crops up, as the shelling from ships offshore causes Paolo’s temporary impotence while simultaneously arousing Francesca. And, as I said, there’s Milli Vanilli, late era Queen, and a strange bit at the end involving both storks and cannibalism.
Ferreri presents his disappointments in life with a darkly magical realist flair. He could be considered a grim counter-part to Federico Fellini, with Sergio Castellitto acting as his post-modern Marcello Mastroianni. Marriage is a sham, friendships are all-too-readily abandoned, women induce insanity, and death is assured. Circumstance stamps the life out of the free-spirited protagonist who somehow never becomes sympathetic. For all its sunlit scenes, fertility imagery, and up-tempo music, The Flesh is a dark musing on the ultimate pointlessness of romance and devotion. And storks.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[Ferreri’s] penultimate film… finds his outrageous and surgically precise touch still in evidence, and his recurring theme of dysfunctional men perplexed and transformed by women who enter their lives receives perhaps its most direct and unorthodox treatment here.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)