Tag Archives: Italian

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)

A GIALLO HALLOWEEN DOUBLE FEATURE

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Here in the States, we associate Halloween with the colors orange and black. Naturally, in the haunted house biz, we tend to ramp up the horror quota by adding  several gallons of splattered red. But since many of the holiday’s customs spring from Italy, let’s head there and focus on the color yellow—“giallo,” in the native tongue—for this 366 Halloween. It’s more apt than one might suspect. While both van Gogh and Gauguin utilized yellow to convey a pacifistic warmth, they also used it to convey sheer horror. Leave it to the Romans to stylishly hone in on the visceral symbology of the pigment and craft an entire genre around it.

I’ll start our giallo Halloween with Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971, directed by Paolo Cavara), which features three Bond girls:  Claudine Auger (Thunderball), (Casino Royale), and Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me). The plot is about a serial killer who dips his weapon of choice in tarantula venom and pursues the ladies, all of whom can be seen in various stages of undress. Despite it’s paper-thin misogyny, Cavara composes with stylish precision. It is paced well and a grisly enough affair to satisfy genre geeks (let’s just say that the antagonist mimics the black wasp). Composer Ennio Morricone lends a helping hand, as he always does. It’s one his wackiest scores, which is saying a lot.

Still from Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)Tarantula is a virtual smorgasbord of giallo clichés: primary colors, rubber gloved killers, knife-wielding POV, subtle-as-a-pair-of-brass-knuckles eroticism, animal motifs a la Bird with the Crystal Plumage, intense chase scenes, razor sharp cinematography, big windows, modish apartments and spas. This makes it something of a starter kit for newcomers, although it is hardly the best giallo. In fact, it’s kind of like the Airport or Towering Inferno of giallo (we’re in for the treat of seeing celebs get whacked… in this case, the celebs being Bond girls).

I have never subscribed to the cult of . He is grossly overrated by his fanatical following, but still he has a few bright spots in his oeuvre. We have already covered A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, so let’s go with Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) instead. Together, they are probably his two strongest early films. 

Duckling is only marginally giallo, although Fulci’s worshipers swear it is one, so we’ll go with that. Fulci’s trademark misogyny is on hand here, and while there’s no denying its repugnance, there’s also no denying he was aesthetically skilled in displaying it—as he was in mocking the pedestaled traditions within Catholicism and expressing his loathing for its perversions and hypocrisies. These themes are full-blown in this murder mystery that begins with a series of brutal child murders. The bourgeoisie Catholic locals blame the societal misfits, including town whore Barbara Bouchet and voodoo priestess Florinda Bolkan—who is erroneously blamed, tortured, and savagely butchered by the ignorant male vigilante swine. But lo and behold, when there’s pedophilia and murder involved, it leads right back to the patriarchy. 

Still from Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)Don’t Torture a Duckling was a box office and critical success, but it cost Fulci much, and he was more or less blacklisted for years for criticizing the Church. This is a film that could not be made today, and although it is not as well-known as the director’s later, more surreal efforts, it’s beautifully horrific and has something to say.  Fulci says his piece with a level of subtlety that would be appropriate for .

CAPSULE: THE FIFTH CORD (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Luigi Bazzoni

FEATURING: , Silvia Monti, Wolfgang Preiss, Renato Romano

PLOT: A newspaper investigative reporter is obligated to turn full detective as a series of murders seemingly tie together everybody in his life in a labyrinthine web of intrigue.

Still from The Fifth Cord (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only remotely possible way you could call this movie weird is if you had never seen a giallo before. It’s not just a giallo, it’s a stereotypical giallo just short of a scathing parody of the genre. It wouldn’t even make the list of the 366 mildly quirkiest movies.

COMMENTS: I have to break my usual mold with this one, because The Fifth Cord is just a special case. On the one hand, make no mistake, this is a good movie overall. It’s breathtakingly shot, handsomely mounted, beautifully scored, and is in fact a stand-out example of its genre. But when it comes to the plot… Italian giallo is a genre known for soap opera plotting that stretches credibility, but The Fifth Cord just takes that sucker to another level. It’s like twenty seasons of “Days of Our Lives” packed into a clown car. Giallo also has a reputation for being derivative, but this movie goes straight to the movie cliché Dollar Store and maxes out its credit card. This gives you two choices: try, in spite of the pumpernickel fruitcake structure, to follow the story (bring a notepad and a bottle of adderall), or ignore the yammering yarn and resign yourself to oohing and aahing at the pretty pictures and atmospheric scenes. Let us start down the first path and see how far we get into The Hyperthyroid Yarn From Hell:

Through the opening credits we witness a New Year’s Eve party at an Italian watering hole. Normally that’s movie-talk for “go ahead and get your drink, nothing important is happening yet.” But no, this is actually the most important New Year’s Eve party in film history, because everybody here is interconnected, and most of them are going to end up dead. At the party is one Julia, who takes her date under a bridge the next day, and Walter, a teacher who happens to be walking through a nearby tunnel at the same time. Walter is clubbed by a shadowy attacker, and Julia is first on the scene as the assailant flees. Walter ends up in the hospital. The main character, Andrea Bild (Franco Nero), is a newspaper reporter dispatched to cover this crime, although Bild is in fact more of a hardboiled detective straight out of a Dashiell Hammett novel. At the hospital Bild meets Dr. Riccardo Bini (Renato Romano), who stonewalls him, and the more helpful police inspector (Wolfgang Preiss), who directs him to Julia, who slams a door in his face.

Bild goes back to the home he shares with his cheesecake mistress Lu, but she checks out, so he visits his old flame Helene (Silvia Monti), who knows Walter, since they teach at the same school. While he’s following up on her leads, Dr. Bini is at home with his crippled wife Sofia. The doctor gets called out on an emergency that Continue reading CAPSULE: THE FIFTH CORD (1971)

CAPSULE: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sergio Martino

FEATURING: , George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov, Nieves Navarro, Dominique Boschero, Carla Mancini

PLOT: Jane, a young lady haunted by her mother’s murder and her own traumatic miscarriage, seeks solace but ends up being sucked into a local Satanic cult; her problems then worsen.

Still from All the Colors of the Dark (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While All the Colors of the Dark is a tasty ham of a thriller and peer to the top films in that genre, it doesn’t get any weirder than it has to be to tell its story—which is actually a straightforward story, right down to its dream sequences and some comparatively tame Satanic rituals. Other reviews of this movie confuse “psychedelic” with “using a diffraction camera filter for a couple scenes.” If anything, Colors apes Alfred Hitchcock at his most spartan. A great thriller, but we watch weirder Italian movies around here before our first Chianti of the day.

COMMENTS: Hi, I’m Giallo Man! I saw the Giallo Signal in the sky and got here as soon as I could. Gotta tell you, I am so heavy into the giallo, I mainline it off the nightstand. If one of those Twilight Zone episodes came along where a character gets to wish themselves into a movie forever, I’d probably pick a giallo. And what a choice plum we have here! All the Colors of the Dark comes with a keen pedigree, directed by Sergio Martino, whose name you may recognize from The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978) or perhaps Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)(#WhatATitle). That latter movie also shares the lead actress Edwige Fenech, whom you might recognize from Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975). That’s before we get to garlic-bread-and-spaghetti western star George Hilton, a supporting cast which reads like a compilation of names from the best of Italian genre films, and filmed-in-England cinematography that could make the cover of an early Black Sabbath album. But best of all is the vintage year of 1972. The Exorcist came out in 1973, so that makes this one occult Euro-horror movie that’s guaranteed not to be a cheap Exorcist knockoff—because it wasn’t even released yet! It doesn’t even kiss much of the dirt that Rosemary’s Baby (1968) trod. I’m almost too excited to watch this.

After a lurid opening nightmare sequence with a blue-eyed stabbing killer in a beige trenchcoat—what, no black gloves?—we meet Jane, who has recently suffered a prematurely terminated pregnancy in a car crash. She lives in a London flat with her boyfriend Richard, who fusses over her while she is plagued by trauma from both this event and nightmares of her mother’s death when she was a child. Jane’s sister Barbara urges her to see a shrink, who is, you guessed it, not much help. The blue-eyed stabber from her nightmares stalks her every waking moment—but is she hallucinating? Jane, towing this head full of psychological baggage, meets her new neighbor, Mary, and the two become fast friends, while Richard and Barbara meet Continue reading CAPSULE: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972)