Tag Archives: Italian

CAPSULE: DEEP BLOOD (1990)

DIRECTED BY: Raffaele Donato,

FEATURING:  Frank Baroni, Cort McCown, Keith Kelsch

PLOT:  A shark hunt progresses after a native blood pact drives a group of privileged boys to avenge the death of their friend.

Still from Deep Blood (1990)

COMMENTS:  Summer 2021 is fading away, and it’s wise to see as many shark movies as possible. Of those, the fuzzy and buzzing 80’s Italian shark film Deep Blood isn’t the worst selection—but it comes close.  Many claim it’s worse than Jaws 4, and judging from its warbled and faded approach to both narrative structure and aesthetics in general, that’s a reasonable assessment. The shark attack scenes lack excitement, women and minorities are marginalized, and the main characters appear bored. Thankfully, the bulk of the movie is made up of narcotizing scuba scenes where little happens besides the inadvertent conjuring of serene oceanic bliss, making it a minor hit for weirdos with an interest in the peculiar and ironic entertainment of dated oceanographic sequences.

Donato and D’Amato succeed in creating a shark drama complete with boats, copters, and underwater scenes, but it’s frazzled by incompetency in the form of loopy synth pads and awkward, boring camera angles. It also hits sour notes with the seeping indolence of the era’s culture—things get kind of racist and sexist.  The only native character (credited as “Indian”) is used as a MacGuffin, and the ladies’ only function is to cheerlead, so distaste and disinterest with Deep Blood grows fast while the boys mope around the cabana, attended to by servants. While the questionable culture of a bunch of yuppie shark hunters is detestable, the characters’ mission to avenge the death of a friend with whom they made a blood pact with gives the narrative some validity. This central concept is enough to propel Deep Blood forward, highlighted by the curious rewards of sleepy scuba scenes.

Stock deep sea footage cuts to polluted swarms of kelp faded in haze, with tranquil swimmers slowly flipping fins, and not much occurring other than a handful of chord changes. The calm Zen quality of these quiet underwater shots is the true charm of Deep Blood. With grey and blue aquatic smears, the undersea content has a distinct 80’s ocean feel that brings to mind better films like Dead Calm. But the nagging synths and wooden acting draw negative attention to Deep Blood‘s lack of charisma. Luckily, there’s a pair of shabby kill scenes to laugh at.

It’s tough to tell (or even care) who is getting killed by the shark during the attack scenes because all characters look and act the same. Protagonists Ben, Miki and Allan all appear to be overzealous wimps when using explosives to kill the shark instead of good old hooks and lines. After all, as Grody in Jaws, Roy Scheider only resorted to pyrotechnics after his bones were rattled by seeing his captain get eaten alive by a prehistoric killing machine. In Deep Blood, the crew has a full arsenal of support together with their mansions, servants, striped pastel shirts, and yachts armed with explosives. And even with the motivating power of some very flirty Italian ladies, they barely get the job done.

Deep Blood boasts cheeky and misguided shark content along with sucky characters. The kill scenes are as exciting as a mail room staff party. What redeems it is the peaceful feeling of floating underwater while a droning score highlights the glowing VHS ambience. Like the moody aesthetics of early PC educational software, Deep Blood offers nodding maritime pleasures with a total lack of self-awareness. You can always watch Jaws afterwards to cleanse your palate.

A flawed but festive watch, Deep Blood is currently available on Youtube for free, and also on DVD and Blu-Ray from Severin films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I feel pretty confident in assuming it’s the only movie where a Native American randomly binds together a group of friends for a blood oath that ends with them confronting a killer shark. Throw in the other stuff you expect from Italian horror—gonzo dialogue, baffling character interactions, low-rent effects work, ill-fitting music—and it all comes together to form a singularly strange experience.”–Brett Gallman, Oh, the Horror! (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PINOCCHIO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Matteo Garrone

FEATURING: Federico Ielapi, , Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini, Marine Vacth, Maria Pia Timo

PLOT: A traveling puppet show comes to his dusty town, inspiring impoverished Gepetto to make his own marionette; but the wood he uses to craft the boy is alive, and has a deep-rooted wanderlust.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Is it the slow-talking snail-form maid who’s sanguine about the trail of goo she leaves everywhere? Is it the pair of anthropomorphic swindlers, Cat and Fox? Is it that puppets seem to be their own species? Yes, and more: Matteo Garrone’s fusing of fairy tale whimsy with Southern-Italian Gothic realism is what makes Pinocchio so strange. Gepetto crafts a living, sentient son out of wood, and the most the townsfolk can muster is, “We’re happy for you, Gepetto, really, but can stop shouting about it? It’s the middle of the night.”

COMMENTS: Pinocchio‘s climax is a long shot of a boy crashing through a field of wheat, shouting enthusiastically for his father. His joy is palpable; and his many stumbles inspire a chuckle. His reunion with the much put-upon carpenter is heartwarming. And the scene takes a looong time. No storyteller relates the puppet boy’s narrative more thoroughly than Matteo Garrone, which is both a curse and a blessing. A curse because, at over two hours, Pinocchio is beyond the patience of its ideal audience; a blessing because the film gives so many wondrous characters and spectacles time to blossom.

Pinocchio’s quest is Homeric in spirit, if not quite in length—though it’s pretty darn close in that way, too. Summary: wooden puppet carved from a magical log, occasional advice proffered by a supernatural cricket, a fairy godmother figure with a pocketful of fresh chances, and much succumbing to temptation. But as in his earlier fantasy (Tale of Tales), Matteo Garrone populates Pinocchio’s world with entities both grotesque and magical. The gloriously named carnival master, Mangiafuoco (“fire eater”) is, in effect, a slave owner. His show’s intricate and well-articulated marionettes are sentient creatures, whose “strings” are merely the restraints of bondage. When a stage puppet spots Pinocchio in the audience, they marvel at his freedom, a freedom Mangiafuoco soon quashes, shanghaiing him first to be part of his act, then to be fuel for his campfire. (“I hated eating half-roasted mutton!”)

These dark entities (the lighter ones, too) inhabit a world best described as “Dust Bowl Fairy Tale.” Beneath a subduing filter, you can see the popping colors used to fill this poverty-stricken milieu. Homes, streets, even the good fairy’s country estate: everything is falling apart. Gepetto is on the cusp of beggary. He uses chisels, adzes, and all the tools of his trade to whittle away at a strange cylinder. We soon learn he is extracting the few remaining edible pieces of cheese from their desiccated wheel. The tragic villains Cat and Fox, who attempt to murder Pinocchio after robbing him, become more desperate and crippled each time we see them.

Carlo Collodi’s original story is a tragic morality tale. While Matteo Garrone scales back the tragedy (a little bit—our boy here, as I’ve spoiled, enjoys a happy ending), his movie is striped throughout with cruelty. It has morality in spades: each time Pinocchio errs—selling his school book to see the puppets; abandoning his father; and, of course, his near-fatal run-in with Mr Butterman, the too-smiling guide to the Land of Toys—he pays heavily for it. But I focus too much on the darkness. Gepetto ridiculously seeks jobs from the innkeeper by nearly breaking his tables, chairs, and door; the young fairy with her snail maid ooze old world wonderment; and Pinocchio laments to Mr. Tuna while in the belly of a giant dogfish, “But I don’t want to be digested!” Pinocchio the film is a bit of slog, but one bursting at the seams with curiosities; not unlike Pinocchio’s journey.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There is so much that Garrone’s Pinocchio appears to resemble: there’s a bit of Tod Browning’s Freaks (and a bit of Frankenstein): echoes of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the Old and New Testament… Pinocchio is a thoroughly bizarre story; Garrone makes of it a weirdly satisfying spectacle.” -Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Anonymous, who dubbed it “”a strong Apocrypha candidate, in my opinion.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: A PURE FORMALITY (1994)

Una pura formalità

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DIRECTED BY: Giuseppe Tornatore

FEATURING: Gérard Depardieu, Roman Polanski

PLOT: Apprehended during a downpour in the middle of the countryside, a famous writer is challenged to explain his whereabouts that evening by the station’s resident inspector, a great fan of the author’s work.

COMMENTS: “When I tell this story, no one will believe me. How can a place this absurd exist?”

Though technically an Italian movie—an Italian wrote and directed it, the ancillary actors are all Italian, as is the entire film crew—there are few movies I’ve seen that feel more “French” than Tornatore’s A Pure Formality. Of course, having Gérard Depardieu, a Frenchman’s Frenchman, as the lead does quite a lot to lend it Gallic bonafides. But beyond that primary anchor are the secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary anchors, all of them latching the film squarely in the great ocean of French cinema. Had you told me that this was Jean Cocteau‘s final film (though he would have been 104 at the time), I might well have believed you.

The story concerns a disillusioned, alcoholic, end-of-his-tether novelist—the second French anchor—named Onoff (Gérard Depardieu), who is found in a frazzled (and drenched) state by the local gendarmes in the French (naturally) countryside. Hostile and unable to produce identity papers, he is taken back to the water-logged police station to await “the Inspector” (a genteel, but commanding, Roman Polanski). Upon the Inspector’s arrival, a strange dialogue ensues, replete with literary quotations and oblique philosophizing—anchor the third. As the late night turns into early morning, their conversation continues, teetering between truth and lies, and becoming increasingly existential in tone as the station gets wetter and wetter.

As this is a psychological thriller, there is a monumental twist near the end; this being a French crime thriller, that twist has monumentally philosophical overtones (the fourth anchor). But throughout the often fraught interrogation occur absurd comedic moments. The police station seems to inhabit some timeless liminal space existing indefinably in an era pieced together from the 1950s through the present. During their talks—which are a real pleasure to witness, as Dépardieu is at the top of his game, and Polanski shows that he should really act more often—the ceiling’s leaks grow in number and intensity. Around the midway point, all the officers, helped by Onoff, literally bail out the station and vainly try to mop up the floodwaters with towels. Meanwhile, a metaphor skitters around the floor in the form of a white mouse, whose fate is alluded to by the baited trap found in a cabinet whose door keeps opening mysteriously.

Whether or not all this artful playfulness works for you hinges on the ending, about which I can say no more. But presuming you appreciate a bit of theatricality (this is, effectively, a two-man stage show) accompanied by an Ennio Morricone score, then A Pure Formality is one of the tastiest slices of crimembert cheese you could hope for1.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the end of the film, amid reminders of Kafka and Beckett, we learn the answer to the strange night’s interrogation. Some members of the audience will have guessed it. Others will have feared it. Few will find it worth the wait.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PIGSTY (1969)

Porcile

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DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Jean-Pierre Léaud, Alberto Lionello, ,

PLOT: In contemporary Germany, a son of an industrialist discusses abstract social principles with his fiancée as his father plans a merger with an old, pre-war associate; in medieval Europe, a young cannibal forms a gang of bandits before eventually being trapped by the local militia.

Still from Pigsty (porcile) 1969

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Pigsty qualifies not only for efficiency’s sake: as two narratives, it would be like getting two Apocrypha titles for the price of one. But each of the narrative strains is an oddity in its own right: one, an ambiguous morality tale stuffed with art-house flourishes; the other, an obvious morality tale stuffed with macabre social commentary.

COMMENTS: There is only one moment of near-tenderness in Pigsty, during an encounter between a young, unnamed scavenger and a young, unnamed militiaman on a blasted hillside in Medieval Europe. The militiaman has been straggling behind the main procession of armed soldiers, whistling as he idles. The two men awkwardly encounter each other, exchange glances, and for the briefest moment one might believe that something romantic might ensue—but almost immediately they fire their weapons, fight with their swords, and one kills, and eats, the other. Pigsty‘s true tenor is shown, not least when the cannibal throws the decapitated head of the guardsman into an steaming thermal vent on the mountainside that overlooks the lifeless clearing. Sacrifice.

Two parallel narratives intertwine as counterpoints, but each reinforces the other’s message. Modern life, with all its trappings (as emphasized by the fiancée character when she opens the contemporary story with the line, “We’re two, rich bourgeois, Julian”), turns out to be no less violent—and no less focused on survival—than life in the Dark Ages. While Pasolini uses wholly visual storytelling for the historical half, he dissects 1960s society via endless conversations between allegorical stereotypes. Julian, the scion of a major industrial concern, finds himself caught between two worlds: his fiancée’s conformist radicalism, and his father’s conformist classism; he retreats from what he sees as a mindless game of consumerist conquest by frequenting the pigsty on the family’s estate. What of love? His fiancée challenges him early on, “You kissed me!” He responds, “I also scratch myself.”

The focus quickly moves from the young man  to the father. Though wheelchair-bound, he derives plenty of joie de vivre from his business, his harp, and many, many conversations about the nature of class and society—finding the hilarity of it all from the side opposite his son. The patriarch is an ex-Nazi in the prosperous half of a divided Germany; his recollections of his political past consist exclusively of “humorous” anecdotes and memories. To illustrate this point—overtly, to the point of heavy-handedness—Pasolini presents this smirking cripple in a bedtime scene where he wishes he had been able to have his caricature drawn by George Grosz, with a Brechtian tune to back it up.

These characters without principle—or, at best, woefully misguided principles—are a direct contrast to the filmmaker. Pasolini was a complex man, but he was filled with disdain for the establishment (specifically, any of them). His views can be distilled as “anti-authoritarian”. There are countless references to parse: the allure of the pigsty, the undercurrent of homoeroticism in the historical narrative, and the nebulous confession of the scavenger (“I killed my father, I ate human flesh, and I quiver with joy”), with its religious overtones. But Pasolini isn’t a subtle filmmaker; even if any given piece of the story he’s telling is veiled in arcane symbolism, his message is always crystal clear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exquisitely revolting satire…”–Time Out

CAPSULE: SICILIAN GHOST STORY (2017)

O Fantasma da Sicília

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DIRECTED BY: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza

FEATURING: Julia Jedlikowska, Gaetano Fernandez

PLOT: A dreamy 12-year old Sicilian girl loses her grip when her young beau disappears without explanation.

Still from Sicilian Ghost Story (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sicilian Ghost Story has drawn comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth for its young protagonist using imagination to cope with harsh reality. It can’t live up to that (perhaps unfair) comparison, however.

COMMENTS: The sense of being in an ancient land where myth and magic, though gone fallow, might spring into life again at any time is an animating spirit of Sicilian Ghost Story. An adolescent character even fantasizes about modernity fading away so he could see the frolicking nymphs and hear the notes from Pan’s flute from the Sicily of yore. Ruins of Roman temples on an outcropping over the beach where the teens play in the surf remind us that all traces of ancient world have not yet passed away.

But ancient gods are not the only spirits around. The mafia also haunts this Sicilian town. No one speaks of them directly, but Luna’s parents forbid the girl from seeing Giuseppe, who seems like a fine boy, because of dark hints about his father. When the boy stops coming to school, no one besides Luna brings it up. She hands out fliers with the Giuseppe’s face on them; tight-lipped, no one offers a lead.

So far, the movie has been a straight drama, a chaste tween love story with a hint of mystery, but then Luna’s visions kick in. As if touched by a prophecy sent from one of those ancient gods, Luna sees the vanished Giuseppe; later, she has a visions of a house, partially underwater. Some of her dreams may be actual clues to the boy’s whereabouts. Queasy pans, blurry screens, and confusion between what is happening inside and outside of Luna’s mind add a fog of disorientation.

The two young leads do an admirable job. The movie’s overall tone is low-key, elegiac, and more than a little depressing. It ultimately shoots for a sense of hope, although the best it can come up with is a life-goes-on shrug coupled with an imperative to not forget. Appropriately so, because, magical realist love story aside, Sicilian Ghost Story is based on a real-life kidnapping that scandalized Sicily in the 1990s.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the strangest and most creative films released so far this year… a dreamlike, sometimes downright disorientating experience sustained by a tender heart beating beneath harsh realism.”–Ross Miller, The National (contemporaneous)