Toxic Love

Giuliano Gemma and Stefania Sandrelli play factory workers in Milan who become lovers in the tragic love story, Delitto D’amore (aka Crime of Love, 1974), directed by Luigi Comencini.

Milan, Italy is world famous as a mecca for high fashion, design and the AC Milan football club but the statistics also reveal that it is still one of Europe’s most polluted cities due to smoke spewing factories and auto emissions. Against this gray, industrial backdrop, Luigi Comencini has set his rarely seen but moving 1974 drama, Delitto D’amore (aka Crime of Love).   

A rough hewn gem from the glory years of Italian cinema, Delitto D’amore is a different kind of love story. In some ways a throwback to the neorealism period, the film is a bracing and unsentimental tale of two factory workers who are drawn to each other despite their great differences. It’s an ill-fated love affair to be sure but the destruction of it is partly due to environmental forces and economic woes as much as social pressures.  On another level, the movie works as a fascinating sociological study of regional differences between Italy’s northern and southern working classes. While the pollution of Milan’s industries informs the entire look of the film, Comencini avoids turning his story into an ecological message film, choosing instead to focus on the conflicted emotions of his two protagonists, Carmela (Stefania Sandrelli), a Sicilian girl from Trapani, and Nullo (Giuliano), a northern Italian, stuck in dead end factory jobs with few other career options.

Carmela (Stefania Sandrelli), a Sicilian, begins a troubled relationship with Nullo (Giuliano Gemma), a northern Italian factory worker in the 1974 Italian film, Delitto D’Amore.

Life for them is a series of traps including their love affair. Think of it as a less romanticized version of Vittorio De Sica’s somewhat similar A Brief Vacation (1978), with visual touches reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s prophetic Red Desert (1964). The film also looks ahead to the dangerous and toxic working conditions of factory workers so well depicted in movies like Mike Nichol’s Silkwood (1983) and joins the ranks of other outstanding Italian films that focus on the working class such as Il Posto (1961), The Organizer (1963), The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) and All Screwed Up (1974).

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) was set in an industrial landscape that looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic future world.

Comencini has his own description of Delitto D’amore: “During the production of the film I told a journalist that I thought the movie was “a fairy tale,” he said in an interview featured in the DVD liner notes. “I couldn’t find anything better to say. The dictionary defines fairy tale as a far-fetched tale with a lesson in morality. This describes my film perfectly.”

Nullo (Giuliano Gemma) and his fellow factory workers have some major issues with company management in Delitto D’amore (1974), directed by Liugi Comencini.

The opening credits of Delitto D’amore sets the tone for what follows with strikingly composed shots of revolving metal containers, conveyor belts, moving gears and heavy machinery occasionally interspersed with close-ups of gloved hands on an assembly line, all of it accompanied by clacking metal noises and the sounds of deafening industry. The sequence that immediately follows serves as a framing device for the story and foretells tragedy. We see Nullo walking past groups of factory workers protesting the death of a fellow employee from poor working conditions. As he approaches the factory boss at the company gate, the camera cuts away as we hear a gunshot.

Working conditions can be hazardous to your health in the 1974 social drama/love story Delitto D’amore.

Briskly paced by Comencini with a kinetic editing style, courtesy of Nino Baragli, Delitto D’amore places the on-again, off-again courtship of Nullo and Carmela front and center. From their first meeting with Carmela is leaving her work shift and Nullo arriving for his, the dynamics of the relationship are established. Nullo is so intrigued by this delicate-featured but feisty beauty that he follows her home despite her attempts to rebuff him.  Yet when they arrive at her residence – a dreary looking slum with a muddy courtyard – she confesses to him, “I’ve been in love with you since my first day at the factory.” When he broaches the subject of dating, she dismisses him with, “It’s too late. You should have noticed me before I’ve worked there for three months. I always laugh so you’ll notice me and you only see me when I cry.” As the director notes in the DVD liner notes, “They’re prisoners of two different cultures with no chance of understanding each other. However, an unknown force pushes them to love each other, the same way that sometimes grain grows where there is no land, no water, and where life is difficult.”

A love story unfolds against the background of a heavily polluted Milan in the 1974 Italian drama Delitto d’amore (aka Crime of Love).

The differences between Northern and Southern Italians are played out constantly throughout the film in ways that are often humorous since they traffic in the stereotypes each side harbors against the other. In one scene, Nullo triggers a discussion about Sicilian women in the factory dressing room and his opinionated male co-workers from the North chime in with their various views:  “They’re violent…they shout and carry guns….My girl used to bite me, out of love…They always say the opposite of the truth. You’re to say yes when they say no….”

Factory worker Carmela (Stefania Sandrelli) receives some bad news from the company doctor after her exam in Delitto D’amore (1974).

This makes an amusing contrast to a later scene in the women’s changing room where Carmela seeks advice about her relationship with Nullo and gets some no-nonsense sexual tips from her Northern coworkers. In the end, Carmela’s tradition bound ways and her own stubborn nature continually clash with Nullo’s uncomplicated and stolid way of looking at the world.

Factory worker Nullo (Giuliano Gemma) lives in a crowded apartment with his extended family in Luigi Comencini’s Delitto D’amore (1974).

Throughout the narrative we get glimpses of other pressures and concerns affecting the lovers. For example, we see Nullo at home with his mother, father, brothers and a sister-in-law, all living a joyless existence in a cramped, claustrophobic apartment with Nullo the main breadwinner. Yet this is definitely a step up from Carmela’s situation, sharing one large room in a ghetto with her entire family and no running water. When Nullo later shows her the depressing housing project where he lives, she is impressed and even envious of the bland high rise that his family calls home.

Pasquale (Brizio Montinaro, left) strongly objects to Nullo (Giuliano Gemma) dating his sister in Delitto D’amore (1974), a drama that addresses class differences and ecological concerns.

The couple’s romance is also threatened by Pasquale (Brizio Montinaro), Carmela’s volatile Sicilian brother, whose sense of old world honor is out of place in modern Milan. In a scene where Nullo attends a meeting of the Workers Council, which is committed to improving conditions for factory workers, Pasquale dismisses the complaints of a female worker and launches into a rant about a woman’s place in society: “Where I’m from our custom has always been that a woman should only know one man in her life. Not two. One! She can’t have much contact with men because men are hunters…Must we change our customs because there’s no work at home? Give us work in Sicily and we’ll go home.”

Nullo (Giuliano Gemma) and Carmela (Stefania Sandrelli) escape the smog-ridden city for a picnic in the country and discover that the countryside is just as polluted in Delitto D’amore (1974).

This is one of the key points in Delitto D’amore. The factories in the North such as Milan and Turin provide employment that allows them to exploit a working class desperate for jobs in a depressed economy. Naturally such a situation draws in laborers from the poorer towns and cities in the South, who don’t mix well, if at all, with the local working class, intensifying everyone’s prejudices and misconceptions about the other. Add to this the terrible factory conditions that result in employee deaths from pollution and you have a movie that paints a bleak picture of Italy’s future circa 1974. Is it much better now?

Carmela (Stefania Sandrelli) refuses a work transfer to a healthier environment because she wants to stay with her lover in Delitto D’amore (1974).

There is a scene in Delitto D’amore where Carmela visits the factory infirmary to receive the results of her medical exam after fainting on the job. The company doctor offers to get her a transfer for health reasons to a factory in another town with a less hazardous work area but she refuses. Instead Carmela prefers working in “the ovens” despite the toxic fumes because the wages are better and she is afraid of losing Nullo if she moves away. The incident is treated casually, without dramatic underscoring, but the implications are dire.

No matter where they go, Carmela (Stefania Sandrelli) and Nullo (Giuliano Gemma) carry their problems with them in the tragic love story Delitto D’amore (1974).

In another scene Nullo takes Carmela to the countryside to show her a place on the river where he used to swim as a kid. Now the site is a garbage dump and the water is swirling with waves of soapy foam and toxic waste. Scattered among the trash heaps are dead birds which Carmela begins collecting so she can bury them. It would be comforting to think that Comencini’s art director created this nightmarish landscape but the reality is probably worse. The director might have found this “ideal” location just outside of Milan.

A confrontation between Nullo (Giuliano Gemma, left) and Pasquale (Brizio Montinaro) turns violent in Delitto D’amore (1974).

It may sound like Delitto D’amore is a total bummer – and it is a tragedy – but there are moments of great tenderness and compassion here as well as unexpected humor. Raro Video’s transfer of the film is a beauty that highlights Luigi Kuveiller’s evocative cinematography which juxtaposes the drab, earth colors of the assembly line workers’ clothes against the often beautiful and bold colors of the interior factory and machinery. Indeed, the humans are often dwarfed by their surroundings and in danger of fading into nothingness against blue and violet factory lights behind frosted glass, the brightly colored posters adorning street walls, and all the green and yellow buses and red motorbikes in transit. There is something visually alluring and poetic about this toxic environment that has the effect of watching a crimson rose burst through the top of a black rubbish pile.   Equally memorable is the unique sound design and music score by Carlo Rustichelli that marries industrial white noise and rhythmic engine sounds with folk melodies (“A Curuna” by O.E. Profanzio and Rosa Balistreril) and a sad orchestral main theme that repeatedly surfaces during the film’s more intimate moments.

Giuliano Gemma and Stefania Sandrelli star in the story of an ill-fated love affair set against the background of an industrialized Milan in Delitto D’amore (1974).

Stefania Sandrelli and Giuliano Gemma are immensely appealing as the doomed couple and Cesira Abbiati stands out in a smaller role as a sexy minx with designs on Nullo. Sandrelli received international acclaim in one of her first roles in Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style (1961) and went on to become one of the most accomplished and respected actresses working in Italian cinema, appearing in such diverse work as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Ettore Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974), Bigas Luna’s Jamon Jamon (1992), and Paolo Virzi’s The First Beautiful Thing (2010), for which Sandrelli won numerous critics’ awards and film festival nominations.

Stefania Sandrelli stars in Divorce Italian Style (1961), the film that made her an international star.

Delitto D’amore features one of Sandrelli’s finest performances, if not her best. Her Carmela is a mixture of fragility, willfulness, naviete and ferocious pride. And she certainly embodies all of the contradictions and regional mannerisms associated with Sicilian women by northern Italians.

Giuliano Gemma became a major star in Italy and Europe for his many appearances in spaghetti westerns.

Giuliano Gemma is less well known to American moviegoers but was a former stuntman who became a popular star in his native Italy. In his early career he starred in a number of sword and sandal imports such as Messalina (1960) and My Son, the Hero (1962) but his popularity began to peak after his appearance in A Pistol for Ringo (1965), the first of many spaghetti westerns that confirmed his leading man status. Although largely confined to genre films throughout his career, he was capable of much more demanding material and earned numerous acting honors for his work in the haunting Il deserto dei tartari (1976, The Desert of the Tartars) and Mario Monicelli’s Speriamo che sia femmina (1986).

Director Luigi Comencini on the set of a film.

Italian director Luigi Comencini has also never received much attention in the U.S. but after seeing Delitto D’amore I would like to see more of his work. The movie that initially launched his international reputation was Bread, Love and Dreams (1953), a critically acclaimed romantic comedy that made Gina Lollobrigida an overnight star and garnered the film an Oscar nomination for Best Writing. Comencini followed it up with a sequel, the equally popular Pane, amore e gelosia (1954, aka Frisky), which led to many more comedies such as Husbands in the City (1957), On the Tiger’s Back (1961) and humorous vignettes in the anthology films, My Wife (1964) and Bambole (1965). At the same time, Comencini was also making other types of films which didn’t enjoy as much recognition or distribution outside Europe such as the war drama Everyone Go Home (1960), the romantic drama Bebo’s Girl (1963), Incompreso (1966), which earned a Palme d’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival, and the mystery thriller, The Sunday Woman (1975) starring Marcello Mastroianni, Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Louis Trintignant.  Delitto D’amore, unfortunately, was barely seen in its own country due to limited distribution and other factors. Referring to the film’s poor reception, Comencini said, “This filled me with bitterness…the film suffered bad reviews by journalists on the left, which truly amazed me. Here we find an old controversy: if the films are not intellectual, they’re not leftist. Simple stories are not good because they are popular with the masses and therefore too easy. For all these reasons it was removed from distribution.” While Delitto D’amore remained a personal favorite of the director’s many films, he admitted in an interview before his death in 2007 that the happiest time in his life was when he worked on his own adaptation of Collodi’s Pinocchio, a five part mini-series for Italian television that proved to be a huge success with viewers and for RAI, Italy’s public broadcast station.   Delitto D’amore was originally released on DVD by Raro Video in June 2010 and may still be available. It would be great to see a Blu-ray upgrade of the film but that may not ever happen. The Raro Video label is to be commended for resurrecting this and other lesser known but equally compelling examples of Italian cinema. Among their other offerings are Antonio Pietrangeli’s Adua and Her Friends (aka Love a la Carte), Pier Paolo Pasolini and Giovannino Guareschi’s fascinating political diatribe La Rabbia (aka The Anger), Lilliana Cavani’s The Year of the Cannibals, a modern take on the Greek tragedy Antigone, and a collection of Eurocrime films by Fernando Di Leo that includes The Italian Connection with Henry Silva and Woody Strode.     Other websites of interest:








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