Salvatore Samperi’s Cuore di Mamma

The late sixties were a time of social and political upheaval on an almost global scale but Italy, in particular, seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Bloody clashes between the police and student demonstrators, bombings and factory worker strikes were on the rise as rival political parties like the DC (Christian Democrats), PRI (Republican party) and PCI (communist party) vied for power. This turbulent time was reflected in some of the edgier, more troubling movies of that period by such major filmmakers as Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, 1966), Bernardo Bertolucci (Partner, 1968), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema [1968], Porcile [1969]), and Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970). Even more polarizing but less well-known is Cuore di Mamma (Mother’s Heart, 1969) by director Salvatore Samperi, which is much more of an avant-garde provocation than anything else. It was based on a story by Samperi and Sergio Bazzini (Dillinger is Dead) and fashioned into a screenplay by Dacia Maraini (The Future is Woman).

It is hard to imagine how the average Italian movie-goer would have reacted to Mother’s Heart but it’s a moot point since the movie vanished quickly from theater screens. This was probably of little concern to Samperi, who clearly had no interest in making a formulaic commercial vehicle and was more focused on creating a state-of-the-nation wake-up call in the guise of a frightening parable. A former left-wing militant from Padua, Samperi had scored a critical success with his debut film Grazie Zia (English title: Thank You, Aunt aka Come Play with Me, 1968), a perverse black comedy in which the son (Lou Castel) of a tycoon, pretending to be a cripple, ensnares his aunt (Lisa Gastoni) in a psychological and erotic power struggle. The film would be the first of several Samperi features that would challenge the morality of the Italian middle class as a predominant theme and Mother’s Heart, his second film, would be a much more direct attack on the bourgeoisie. Samperi also had the ideal collaborator with his main actress Carla Gravina, who was a political activist and later became a deputy for the Italian Communist Part.

Carla Gravina plays Lorenza, the shellshocked divorced mother of three kids in MOTHER’S HEART (1969), directed by the underrated Salvatore Samperi.

In Mother’s Heart, Gravina plays Lorenza Garrone, the ex-wife of Andrea (Philippe Leroy), the owner of a pharmaceutical company. She lives a comfortable lifestyle with a live-in housekeeper and a babysitter who looks after her three children while she passes the time shopping or working part-time in a book store. Yet, something is clearly not right in the Garrone household and the children are a major part of the problem. With an absent father and a self-absorbed mother, the kids are becoming dangerously unmanageable. Massimo (Mauro Gravina), the oldest son, wears an army helmet and relentlessly manipulates his younger sister Anna (Monica Gravina) and baby brother Sebastiano (Massimiliano Ferendeles) into committing acts of cruelty and destruction.

Mauro Gravina, the son of Italian actress Carla Gravina, plays Massimo, a pre-teen fascist terrorist in MOTHER’S HEART (1969) aka Cuore di Mamma.

Lorenza barely reacts to the children’s anti-social activities and seems to be sleepwalking through her life as if she is recovering from some traumatic event. She starts to emerge from her dazed state when she witnesses a shoplifter steal a book from her work place. She follows the man but loses his trail on a city bus only to see him again a few days later, robbing a jewelry store with two accomplices. Eventually Lorenza tracks the shoplifter to an apartment which is the headquarters of a covert terrorist cell. Slowly Lorenza finds herself drawn into this anarchic commune as a kind of substitute family. Once she becomes skilled at bomb making, we know her life is going to take a drastic turn.

The explosive fiery shot from the finale of MOTHER’S HEART (1969), directed by Salvatore Samperi.

While many of the narrative twists and turns in Mother’s Heart are outrageous and disturbing, Samperi prefers to vent his rage at Italian society in an almost clinical, detached manner. His presentation of Lorenza’s bourgeoisie household might look like the set of a family sit-com but the events unfold as theater-of-the-absurd antics and the cool, dispassionate tone is maintained by Gravina’s mute heroine. Lorenza never speaks a word of dialogue the entire film yet the other characters often engage her in conversation (which often become soliloquies) without ever expecting her to answer or even question her silence. Since Gravina is in practically every scene in the movie, this puts quite a burden on the actress to make her heroine seem real and not a theatrical device. To her credit, Gravina has a wonderfully expressive face and body and proves to be a magnetic screen presence, even if we never really know what Lorenza is thinking or feeling. She remains an enigma to the very end but Samperi succeeds in making her a symbol of middle class apathy that becomes galvanized by exposure to a band of aspiring terrorists.

Lorenza (Carla Gravina) is a less than ideal mother figure in MOTHER’S HEART (1969) which co-stars her own two children, Monica and Mauro (in the background).

Mother’s Heart is a much easier movie to admire than like and the film’s opening scene is designed to challenge and confront viewers who rarely watch experimental or avant-garde cinema. Massimo is sitting astride the babysitter, who is face down with her legs bound, while Anna watches her brother heat up a knitting needle by candle. He then proceeds to burn the image of a flower on the woman’s thighs as she squirms helplessly. The fact that the babysitter doesn’t scream in protest or cry only enhances the surreal atmosphere, which is furthered accented by Ennio Morricone’s strangely upbeat music score. Sounds of soldiers marching mixed with children’s lullabies and carefree Italian pop songs create an ironic soundscape that underscores the on-screen subversion.

Italian director Salvatore Samperi

Samperi also posits Lorenza’s children in a recognizable suburban environment but they are not rendered as realistic characters and function more as walking/talking metaphors for the rising right-wing sentiments of certain Italians at the time. Massimo, in particular, behaves like a mini-Mussolini, spouting fascist ideology and racist comments like “A parasite is a Negro living on the shoulders of others.” [Spoiler alert] His behavior becomes increasingly homicidal as he first blows up the family cat in a rocket experiment and later tries to gas the maid. He then coerces his sister to help drown little Sebastiano in the bathtub (offscreen) and devises a booby-trap on the staircase that sends his stepmother Eleonora (Nicoletta Rizzi) to the hospital with a leg injury. Massimo is a truly monstrous creation and it is a relief when Lorenza finally takes action and removes him from her life. But why did she wait to react until after he murdered his siblings and threatened her with blackmail?

Massimo (Mauro Gravina) and Anna (Monica Gravina) try to coax their baby brother Sebastiano (Massimiliano Ferendeles) into a rocket to the Moon (which blows up) in MOTHER’S HEART (1969).

There are too many questions and hardly any answers at the fadeout of Mother’s Heart but a few things are obvious. Lorenza and Andrea are clearly failures at parenting but Andrea mostly blames his ex-wife for the children’s aberrant behavior. He expects her to be the caregiver while he provides the necessary financial support but little else. With an fairweather dad and a zombie mother, it’s no wonder the kids have run amok. Contributing to the general dystopia is the media which bombards the Garrone household with grisly footage from atrocities around the world such as this report on earthquake victims: “A piece of bone is protruding from the mangled leg and it’s covered with earth and ants.” The children, of course, are transfixed by this sort of reporting.

Magda (Beba Loncar, right) tries to seduce her sister-in-law Lorenza (Carla Gravina) to no avail in MOTHER’S HEART (1969), a radical left-wing political drama from Italy.

The other people in Lorenza’s immediate circle are her sister-in-law Magda (Beba Loncar) and her boss at the bookstore. Magda is a bored, meddlesome gossip who despises her brother and wants Lorenza for herself. She even puts the moves on her in a would-be lesbian encounter that is abruptly halted before it gets serious. The bookstore manager is another matter. When a woman comes into the store requesting a Jules Verne-like adventure novel, he recommends Justine by the Marquis de Sade and tells her it is the story of an orphan girl and a real tearjerker. She buys it and happily exits the store.

The family maid, naked and humiliated, is finally released from the closet after being gassed by the terrible Massimo (Mauro Gravina, standing on right) and his siblings in MOTHER’S HEART (1969).

Nobody comes off looking good in Mother’s Heart. The maid and the babysitter as representatives of the working class seem resigned to their fates and incapable of standing up for themselves or questioning the actions of their employers. Even a brief scene at a factory where left-wing radicals try to distribute their propaganda shows the blue-collar workers responding with complete indifference, hostility – “Get a job!” – or violence. Everyone seems trapped in their social class with no interest in educating themselves or challenging authority.

Mariano (Paolo Graziosi) plays the leader of a band of terrorists who want to destroy the established order in 1969 avant-garde drama MOTHER’S HEART, directed by Salvatore Samperi.

Most surprising of all, considering Samperi’s political background, is the depiction of the radicals who inspire Lorenza to take control of her own life. They come across as pretentious, narcissistic and too disorganized to be taken seriously by anyone. Mariano (Paolo Graziosi), the leader of the leader, might be the most ridiculous one of all with his arrogant pontificating: “We believe in crashing down and in ideological terrorism. The current system relies on the concept of ownership. Our organization intends to void this concept in each attack on property of any kind…for us this is a revolutionary act.” If Samperi intended these scenes as a parody of left-wing radicals, then what to make of the final scene where Lorenza bombs her ex-husband’s factory? The climax suggests that Lorenza has finally thrown off the shackles of domestic enslavement and achieved liberation but to what end? Her future looks more uncertain than ever.

If Mother’s Heart seemed like a slap in the face to Italian moviegoers at the time, it seems even more confrontational today, especially the scenes with Lorenza’s children. Child nudity is an instant hot button topic and Samperi presents two scenes where Massimo and Anna are romping in the buff with their privates exposed, first at their private beach and later in the bathroom. Never mind that the two kids are played by Gravina’s own children, it is still disturbing to see the two pre-teens climb into the bathtub with Lorenza and fondle her affectionately. The incestuous overtones are impossible to ignore as Massimo grabs his mother’s leg and says, “How pretty you are. You must be alone with me.” I can imagine the outrage these scenes could arouse today and yet the nudity is presented in a very matter-of-fact manner and is never salacious or exploitive.

Lorenza (Carla Gravina) shares a bath with her two pre-teen children (who in real life are her kids) in the provocative 1969 film, MOTHER’S HEART.

I was not able to find any articles or research that revealed how critics responded to Mother’s Heart in 1969 or whether it encountered any censorship from Italian officials. Samperi simply moved on to his next feature, Uccidete il Vitello Grasso e Arrostitelo (English title, Kill the Fatted Calf and Roast It, 1970), which once again explored class differences in an opaque melodrama about a decadent upper class family and the death – or was it murder? – of the clan’s patriarch. It wasn’t until the release of Malizia (English title: Malicious) in 1973 that Samperi finally scored a bona-fide box-office hit and critics loved it too. A satire of bourgeois hypocrisy, the erotic comedy featured the gorgeous Laura Antonelli as a housekeeper who is lusted after by her employer, a widower, and his two sons. The movie made Antonelli an international star overnight (the nude scenes didn’t hurt) but Samperi never had another commercial hit on this level and complained that Malizia would probably be the primary film mentioned in his obituary (It was when he died in March 2009 at age 65).  

Samperi would continue to make interesting and provocative films after Malizia such as Scandalo (English title: Submission, 1976) starring Franco Nero and Lisa Gastoni as lovers whose affair descends into a S&M obsession and Fotografando Patrizia (English title, The Dark Side of Love, 1984), a tale of incest between a sister and her porn-addicted, younger brother. Of his later work, critics were most impressed with Ernesto (1979), a period drama set in 1911 in which a 17-year-old office clerk embarks on a gay relationship with a dock worker.

In regards to Carla Gravina, the actress spent most of her career alternating between theater and films while continuing her participation in politics. American audiences are probably not familiar with her work but Eurotrash addicts know her from the 1974 Exorcist imitation, The Antichrist, which was released in the U.S. as The Tempter and featured Mel Ferrer and Arthur Kennedy in supporting roles; Gravina played a victim of demonic possession. She attracted much more favorable attention from critics for her work in Alessandro Blasetti’s romance, Amore e Chiacchiere (English title: Love and Chatter, 1958), the post-WW2 drama Estrina (1959), Ettore Scola’s La Terrazza (1980), and Il Lungo Silenzio (1993), Margarethe von Trotta’s expose of Mafia corruption. Gravina also became the subject of tabloids in the late sixties when she had an affair with married actor Gian Maria Volonte, became pregnant and had a daughter. After 1998 Gravina retired from the acting profession but Mother’s Heart is an excellent introduction to an offbeat and adventurous acting career.

Mother’s Heart is not currently available on any format in the U.S. but, if you have an all-region DVD player, you might be able to find a PAL import version from Italy (no English subtitles).  

The Italian film poster for MOTHER’S HEART (1969).

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