When did alienation in modern society become a favorite thematic concern in the culture and the arts, particularly in the cinema? Certainly the films of Michelangelo Antonioni addressed the inability of people to connect, feel or relate to each other in a post-industrial age world as early as 1957 in Il Grido. But by the early sixties, it seemed as if every major film director in the world was addressing the topic on some level. A general sense of malaise was in the air as if the modern world was having a counterproductive effect on humanity, creating a sense of futility, amorality or complete apathy. You could see aspects of this reflected in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1961) and Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live (1962). All of these are considered cinematic masterworks of the 20th century but there are also many worthy and lesser-known contributions to the pantheon of alienation cinema and one of the most strikingly is Il Mare (The Sea), the 1963 directorial debut of Giuseppe Patroni Griffi.
Griffi began his career as a scriptwriter for the Italian radio network RAI and eventually moved into theater where he became one of the country’s most prominent playwrights. His theatrical productions of plays by Jean Cocteau, Tennessee Williams and others as well as his TV adaptations of popular operas such as Verdi’s La Traviata are still considered the crowning achievements of his career but his work as a novelist and filmmaker have received little attention outside his own country.
Not one of his six feature films ever achieved the kind of breakout success that would have insured his place in cinema history alongside peers like Fellini, Antonioni or Pasolini. Among the few to receive U.S. distribution were ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1971), a Jacobean revenge drama starring Charlotte Rampling in an early role, The Driver’s Seat (1974 aka Identikit), a bizarre and polarizing version of Muriel Spark’s diabolically crafted novella with Elizabeth Taylor as the unfathomable heroine, and The Divine Nymph (1975), an erotic melodrama set during the Roaring Twenties and featuring Italian sex siren Lauren Antonelli. If you were lucky enough to see ‘Tis a Pity and The Divine Nymph when they were first released here, they were most likely English-dubbed versions, which is not the ideal way to see any foreign language film since you are not hearing the original actors’ voices in most cases.
If anything, Griffi is probably better known to American aficionados of Italian cinema as one of the screenwriters behind Valerio Zurlini’s poignant Girl With a Suitcase (1961) and Francesco Rosi’s charming Cinderella-like fantasy, More Than a Miracle (1967) with a gorgeous Sophia Loren in the title role. Things might have turned out differently for Griffi if Il Mare had been seen by more people outside his native Italy. It is a remarkably self-assured directorial debut that bears some similarities to Antonioni’s black-and-white trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse) in the way that conventional narrative is replaced by a succinct visual approach to exploring character and setting. It may be too abstract and plotless for some viewers but Griffi embues his film with an underlying compassion and eroticism that is at odds with Antonioni’s more enigmatic and dispassionate approach.
The setting in Il Mare is the island of Capri during the winter season, which plays a major role in the film just as the Sicilian islands where Antonioni filmed L’Avventura was crucial to the storyline. The gray, overcast skies, the rocky coastline against a churning sea and the mostly deserted, maze-like streets create a desolate landscape where the three main characters confront themselves and each other in Griffi’s soul-searching scenario (It was written by the director and based on an idea by Griffi and Alfio Valdarnini).
The storyline is minimalistic with Griffi preferring to express his ideas visually with very little dialogue. When the characters speak, they may reveal a little bit about themselves but their true nature is better expressed by their actions and behavior, especially in private moments. It should also be noted that none of the three protagonists are ever introduced by name nor do they bother with that formality when addressing each other.
Il Mare opens as a brooding passenger (Umberto Orsini) on the ferry to the island disembarks and takes a taxi to his luxurious hotel suite with a stunning sea view. We slowly learn that he is an actor from Rome and that he had planned to meet a woman in Capri. Whether she was his fiancée or something more is never revealed but an overheard phone conversation makes it clear that their affair is over.
In the hotel bar, Orsini notices a temperamental young man (Dino Mele) having a fit over being served a drink with ice. In the course of the film, it appears that Mele may be a former mental patient and has possibly fled Naples in order to avoid being institutionalized. He looks barely twenty years old and has a dark Mediterranean handsomeness (Mele resembles a younger, sleeker male model-like version of Benicio Del Toro).
Thus begins a wary dance between the two men that veers from attraction to repulsion and back again. They fight, taunt each other, get drunk together and engage in some mean-spirited horseplay that verges on the homoerotic though neither character makes an overt pass. In this first part of the film, Griffi not only exposes the ambiguity and confusion of these two men but also teases the viewer with a deceptive sexual tango that gives way to a deeper exploration of loneliness.
Enter protagonist number three, a chic and attractive woman (Francoise Prévost) who has come to Capri to sell her magnificent villa. At first Orsini mistakes her at a distance for his estranged girlfriend and rushes to her. After an awkward embrace, he realizes his error and apologizes but Prévost is amused and intrigued. She soon joins Orsini and Mele, creating an ever-changing, three-way relationship, which often pits two against one.
Although all three characters are often insufferable in their behavior, they are also recognizably human. They may be their own worst enemies but they are also capable of generosity, kindness, vulnerability and even a self-deprecating sense of humor. In this way, Il Mare is more engaging on an emotional level than most of Antonioni’s alienation dramas. Griffi’s interest in his trio is simply a means to explore human longing and self-inflicted angst.
It is up to the viewer to decide at the end of Il Mare whether Orsini, Mele and Prévost have been changed by their encounter for the better or whether they are more isolated and alone than before. Regardless of your viewpoint, the film remains a haunting and visually ravishing experience full of intimate moments which linger long in the memory.
There is a masterful sequence in the rain which depicts Prévost wandering the island under her umbrella while Orsini prowls the street, looking for her. At the same time, a shirtless Mele emerges from his rooftop pensione to bath in the rainwater in a manner that suggests both liberation and ecstasy. In another inspired scene that is both mischievous and playful, Mele and Prévost encounter an elderly musician in the streets. While Mele takes the man’s stringed instrument and strums a tense rhythm, Prévost pretends to be a one-eyed assassin who mimicks cutting the man’s throat with a razor. Then the two troublemakers rush off into the night like naughty children and convene at a deserted pool where Prévost fires imaginary bullets at her willing target.
Even little moments in the film offer up visual and aural insights into the three protagonists – Prévost emptying a drawer and burning personal letters and mementos in the fireplace; Orsini riding a funicular up a desolate hillside; Mele escaping his troubles in the back of a taxicab while listening to the theme song to The Blob. Certainly Il Mare presented a marketing challenge to the film distributor which may explain why the theatrical poster is so deceptive. It shows the bare torsos of Orsini and Prévost in a steamy embrace but the film is surprisingly discreet when it comes to nudity or sex scenes. In fact, the only intimate encounter between Orsini and Prévost turns out to be a joyless tryst which only accents their unhappiness.
Griffi’s directorial debut is a genuine tour-de-force but special mention must also go to the exquisite black and white cinematography by Ennio Guarnieri, who has photographed everything from Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 (1969) to Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away (1974) to Fellini’s Ginger and Fred (1986). The stark but expressive music score is by Giovanni Fusco (Hiroshima Mon Amour, L’Avventura, The Confession) and Ruggero Mastroianni, the younger brother of Marcello, brings a poetic sensibility to the editing.
The three principal players are all superb. Umberto Orsini is alternately charismatic and self-absorbed as the restless actor. Orsini has never quite achieved international stardom but he is probably most familiar to American audiences for his roles in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), the Charles Bronson crime drama, The Family (1970) and as Sylvia Kristel’s husband in Emmanuelle II: The Joys of a Woman (1975).
As a once pampered married woman approaching middle age in Il Mare, French actress Francoise Prévost conveys just the right mixture of bitterness, regret and devil-may-care nonchalance. Her versatility as an actress can be seen in such dissimilar screen roles as the lesbian fashion designer in The Girl With the Golden Eyes (1961), a possible conspirator in Jacques Rivette’s paranoid Paris Belongs to Us (1961), and as Gertrud, mother of Hamlet, in a spaghetti western version of the popular Shakespearean drama – Johnny Hamlet (1968).
And what ever happened to Dino Mele? It is practically impossible to find out much information about this strikingly handsome Italian actor who stopped making movies in the late seventies. Il Mare marked Mele’s screen debut and he radiates a volatile but seductive appeal as the troubled young Neapolitan. He clearly had the looks to be a boy toy pinup but he could also act. Unfortunately, Mele never graduated to leading roles but he has appeared in numerous supporting roles in such cult items as the 1968 Sergio Leone epic, Once Upon a Time in the West (he appears in a flashback sequence as Charles Bronson’s character as a child), the delightfully twisted giallo Amuck (1972) and the allegorical costume drama, The Desert of the Tartars (1976). Il Mare was well received by Italian film critics at the time but it took Griffi six years to complete another feature, which killed any momentum generated by his successful debut. Metti, Una Sera a Cena (1971), Griffi’s second film is more self-consciously arty and erotic than Il Mare with its focus on a group of jaded intellectuals who play sexual games and flaunt anti-bourgeoise attitudes. While it was also a critical success in Italy, Metti, Una Sera a Cena wasn’t widely distributed outside the country. And Griffi’s later work, including the softcore sex drama La Gabbia (1985), didn’t fare any better.
My suggestion is to start with Il Mare and if you are intrigued, seek out Griffi’s other work in chronological order. Il Mare is available in a nice letterboxed print with English subtitles from European Trash Cinema. There is a small RAI logo burned into the upper right corner of the screen but it is not that distracting.
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