Elio Petri’s Portrait of the Artist as Mental Patient

Italian director Elio Petri is probably best known for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), which won the Oscar for Best Screenplay (by Petri and Ugo Pirro) in 1972. Yet, most of his other work, with the possible exception of the cult sci-fi satire The 10th Victim (1965), remains overlooked or forgotten when film historians write about the great Italian directors of the sixties and seventies. And 1968’s A Quiet Place in the Country (Un Tranquillo Posto di Campagna) is easily one of his most intriguing and visually compelling films.

Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero, an off screen couple at the time, play lovers in the psychological thriller, A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), directed by Elio Petri.

Plot synopsis: Leonardo needs to get away from the hectic pace of urban Milan. A popular painter of boldly colored, wall-sized canvases, he suddenly develops an almost paralyzing anxiety over his work. Disturbing sadomasochistic nightmares and violent fantasies don’t help his condition and, with the help of his mistress/art dealer Flavia, he rents a sprawling, deserted villa in the country for a quieter work environment. At first, Leonardo feels inspired to paint again but soon becomes aware of another presence in his villa and it’s not an earthbound one. Is Leonardo losing his mind or is the villa actually haunted by the spirit of its former owner, a possessive nymphomaniac who wants the artist all to herself?

Gabriella Boccardo plays Wanda, who may be a ghost or a figment of an artist’s imagination in A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), starring Franco Nero as the artist Leonardo Ferri.

A tale of mental disintegration seen from the victim’s viewpoint, A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) is an often brilliant fusion of experimental filmmaking pyrotechnics and gothic horror conventions. Made in the wake of the blockbuster musical, Camelot (1967), where Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero first met and became lovers, this further collaboration between them, directed by Elio Petri, is decidedly less conventional and almost forgotten today. The only reason it probably received distribution in an English-dubbed version in the U.S. in 1970 was due to the tabloid notoriety of Redgrave and Nero, who were living together openly and had a child together. (They eventually separated but reunited and were legally married in 2006).

A painter (Franco Nero) starts to lose his sanity and imagines his mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) is trying to control or even kill him in A Quiet Place in the Country (1968).

Unlike some of the art house bombs Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, another famous celebrity couple of the sixties, made at the height of their fame (Doctor Faustus [1967], Boom! [1968], Under Milk Wood [1972]), Redgrave and Nero’s Italian film phase consisted of outre genre films. A Quiet Place in the Country is a giallo on acid, Drop-Out (1970) is a picaresque road movie, and La Vacanza (1971) is an avant-garde historical drama; the latter two were directed by Tinto Brass, who later became infamous for directing the scandalous Caligula (1979) and other explicit erotic films like The Voyeur (1994) and Cheeky (2000).

Director Elio Petri gives Franco Nero instructions for a scene outside a villa near Padua, Italy in A Quiet Place in the Country (1968).

Using an artist as his protagonist in A Quiet Place in the Country was a logical choice for Petri because he was an avid art collector and was particularly fond of American painters and pop art – the later was an obvious influence on his futuristic view of the battle of the sexes in The 10th Victim. You can see the influence of such artists as Joe Tilson, George Segal, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and others in the unique set designs of Piero Poletto and Petri actually used American painter Jim Dine as a model for Franco Nero’s Fernando.  Dine had previously shown his work in 1964 at the Venice Biennale along with Robert Rauschenberg, Johns and Claes Oldenburg and Petri later traveled to London (where Dine was living) to meet the artist and “invited him to Cinecitta to paint around fifteen large canvases, all of which would appear in the film. Jim Dine was filmed while working so that actor Franco Nero could later replicate his gestures when portraying the film’s protagonist. Petri wanted Dine to stay in Italy to advise Nero and perhaps weigh in on some visual aspects of the film. However, the painter had to return to London for other commitments.” (from Writings on Cinema & Life: Elio Petri).

An eerie seance sequence in Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) conjures up the evil spirit of a nymphomaniac named Wanda….or does it?

On a visual level, A Quiet Place in the Country is an astonishing tour-de-force that begins with the credits, rendered like an underground film with scratched emulsion and countdown leader interspersed with quick cuts of classic and contemporary paintings. As the film progresses, Luigi Kuveiller’s cinematography reflects the erratic mood of its tormented protagonist, going from wild mood swings (a slo-mo trashing of Leonardo’s studio with buckets of paint spilled everywhere by a poltergeist) to pastoral bliss (Leonardo lying in a golden-hued farm field drinking wine and intently studying a nudie magazine).   The unsettling tone of the movie is further enhanced by Ennio Morricone’s cacophonous and nerve-jangling score that mixes industrial sounds with free-form jazz and the natural music of the countryside – flies, birds, crickets, the sound of the wind, creaking wooden doors.

Vanessa Redgrave is depicted as both seductress and victim in Elio Petri’s A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (1969). Courtesy Photofest

While both Nero and Redgrave are fine in their respective roles as the disturbed artist and his jeopardized lover, the real star of A Quiet Place in the Country is the superb villa where the bulk of the disturbing narrative takes place. According to Redgrave in her autobiography, “We filmed in a huge deserted villa about twenty miles from Vicenza and Padua. Franco and I rented a wing of the Casa Veronese, a villa surrounded by a farm, from two elderly spinsters, the Misses Veronese, and we spent about two months there, in May and June 1967.” The filming of A Quiet Place in the Country was a joyful experience for them both and they were sad to leave the villa when the film was finished.

Franco Nero plays a painter who moves to a remote villa in the country that may be haunted in Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country (1968).

Although A Quiet Place in the Country was not a commercial success in Europe or the U.S. due to its refusal to follow genre expectations or resolve the film’s mysteries, it did receive several rave reviews from a handful of high profile critics such as Howard Thompson of The New York Times who wrote, “This Italian-made color film, if you stay with it on its own terms, will absolutely nail you to the seat…the picture visually hurtles and roars to a climax of complete logic and conviction, blending real and unreal images that will curl your hair. The total effect is devastating.”

Franco Nero plays a painter who is either going mad or being driven to insanity by others in A Quiet Place in the Country (1968).

If you have never seen an Elio Petri film, you might want to start with his more accessible 1965 pop art fantasy, The 10th Victim, before moving on to A Quiet Place in the Country, which is much darker in tone. But if the latter film inspires you to delve further into Petri’s filmography, you should try We Still Kill the Old Way (1967), a black comedy about the Mafia, the anti-Fascist character study Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), which many critics consider his masterpiece, Todo Modo (1976), a nightmarish political allegory, or even his earlier crime procedural drama, L’Assassino (The Assassin, 1961), in which Marcello Mastroianni plays an antique dealer who becomes a prime murder suspect.

Marcello Mastroianni plays an antique dealer who becomes caught up in a Kafka-like nightmare in Elio Petri’s The Assassin (1961).

Petri would later comment on A Quiet Place in the Country in the book, L’avventurosa storia del cinema italiano: “The script of A Quiet Place in the Country dates back to ’62; I wrote it with Tonino Guerra but I could shoot it only towards the end of ’67. The reason why I defend A Quiet Place in the Country is because it is the portrait of an artist, of a middle-class intellectual and of his division. He was a middle-class artist who, as far as his expressive means were concerned, tried to upset forms and formulas and who found himself prisoner of a serial production system. Thence his escape towards the ghosts of romantic culture. The film was a criticism of the intellectual, indeed from the inside. In short, we were on the threshold of ’68 and this is my last film before Investigation [of a Citizen Above Suspicion]; that is before making films I could feel were useful to some cause.”

Director Elio Petri on the set with Franco Nero in A Quiet Place in the Country (1968).

In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Franco Nero commented on A Quiet Place in the Country: “One movie I’m particularly proud of is A Quiet Place in the Country. It was made by Elio Petri who for me was an Italian Kubrick. He only made about 10 films but they were all completely different, and so ahead of their time. For Petri I played an artist, so they put me with a young painter, who did the paintings in the film. After shooting, he asked me if I wanted to by any of them, for $10,000. In the 60s that sounded ridiculous, he was a nobody. I think I told him to fuck off. Years later, I was in New York and saw his paintings on huge billboards. His name was Jim Dine, and you can’t get a painting of his for less than $100,000 (£62,000).”

Painter Leonardo Ferri (Franco Nero) throws himself into his work but will soon experience a strange sort of creative blockage in A Quiet Place in the Country (1968).

For many years A Quiet Place in the Country was a difficult film to see on any format in the U.S. except for an English-dubbed VHS version. In recent years the film has aired on Turner Classic Movies and in 2011 MGM released a Limited Edition DVD which was a handsome presentation despite a lack of DVD extras. In September 2017 Shout! Factory released the film on Blu-Ray with subtitle options and extra features including an interview with Franco Nero and audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth. For fans of A Quiet Place in the Country, this is your best option.   Some trivia on the film: Petri’s co-screenwriter, Tonino Guerra, is one of the great Italian screenwriters of his era. He has been nominated for Best Screenplay Oscars three times for his contributions to Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966) and Mario Monicelli’s Casanova 70 (1965). Other career highlights include his screenplays for Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), Vittorio De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (1964), Francesco Rosi’s The Mattei Affair (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia (1983) and Theodoros Angelopoulos’ Landscape in the Mist (1988).

The legendary Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra

Some sources state that Petri had originally wanted Jack Nicholson to play the part that eventually went to Franco Nero. This was before Nicholson’s breakthrough performance in Easy Rider (1969), when he was still appearing in American International exploitation fare like Psych-Out (1967) and art house indies like Monte Hellman’s existentialist westerns, Ride the Whirlwind and The Shooting (both 1966).  * This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

One of the more disturbing images from the psychological thriller, A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) directed by Elio Petri.

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