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).

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Stop the World…I Want to Get Off!

No, I am not referring to the 1961 musical by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, which enjoyed successful stage productions in London and Broadway before being adapted for the screen in 1966. I’m talking about the 1970 satire, Fermate il Mondo…Voglio Scendere! (the title translates as Stop the World…I Want to Get Off! In English), which was the directorial debut of Italian actor Giancarlo Cobelli, based on a screenplay he wrote with fellow thespians Giancarlo Badessi and Laura Betti, a close friend and frequent collaborator with Pier Paolo Pasolini. The film is a frenzied attack on consumerism and the Italian media but its bursting-at-the-seams energy emanates not so much from outrage as it does from a madcap sense of anarchy.

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Through the Eyes of a Child

Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Citta Aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) is generally acknowledged as the film that ushered in the neorealism movement and set the tone and style for the postwar Italian films that followed. But the roots of neorealism can be traced back to Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) and Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us (1944, I bambini ci guardano), both of which were filmed in 1942 but encountered distribution problems upon their release in the fall of 1942 when the war finally came to Italy and the bombings began. Ossessione was also the victim of Fascist censorship which reduced the film to less than half of its original running time and for years it was denied distribution in the U.S. due to an infringement of copyright (it was an uncredited adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice). The Children Are Watching Us didn’t fare any better during its limited release and for years it was a difficult film to see in its original form, even in its own country. 



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12 Italian Directors on 12 Italian Cities

In 1989 Istituto Luce, the oldest public institution devoted to film production, distribution and archival material in Italy, produced an omnibus film consisting of 12 segments entitled 12 Registi per 12 Citta (12 Directors for 12 Cities). A documentary/travelogue hybrid, the film was made as a promotional vehicle in support of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Rome and part of its intent was to lure tourists to Italy, particularly to the cities showcased in the film.  The title is not completely accurate; thirteen directors, not twelve, contributed to the project if you count Giuseppe Bertolucci, the younger brother of Bernardo Bertolucci, who co-directed the Bologna section with Bernardo. 12 Registi per 12 Citta is also unconventional in its presentation with each director approaching his subject in his own unique way and the selected cities include some offbeat choices like Udine and Cagliari as well as some major omissions. What, no Venice?

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Hell is Other People

A random group of strangers being forced to share close quarters during an impending disaster or emergency situation is a familiar trope in genre films. The situation becomes even more dire when most of the stranded individuals prove to be loathsome or extremely annoying. This is essentially the set-up for Something Creeping in the Dark (Italian title: Qualcosa Striscia nel Buio, 1971), a quintessential old dark house thriller which starts as a suspenseful melodrama and quickly descends into the realm of the occult.  

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Tarot Cards, Talismans, Seances and Telekinesis

People usually have certain expectations when they invest the time to watch a movie, especially if it has been advertised as a genre film like a western, sci-fi or horror thriller. This must have been a perplexing problem for the distributors of Arcana (1972), Guilio Questi’s mysterious tale of a widow and her brooding son who use fortune telling, tarot cards and seances to con a gullible clientele. The film dabbles in the supernatural but it also flirts with other topics like voyeurism, incest, Macedonian rituals, neglected children, middle class despair and inept bureaucracies. Some critics have pigeonholed Arcana as a horror film and it is certainly horrific in tone and attitude but don’t expect the movie to conform to genre conventions. The director even issues a disclaimer at the beginning: “To the watchers: This movie is not a story but a game of cards. For this reason both its start and the epilogue are not believable. You are the players. Play smartly and you’ll win.” Make of that what you will, I think Arcana works best as a puzzle, even if it is an often inscrutable and unsolvable one that is presented in two acts. Continue reading

The Harmonious Sounds of Franco De Gemini

You might not know the name but you have probably heard his music and the unmistakable sound of his harmonica on countless Italian film scores. The plaintive wail of his instrument on Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) was used as a musical motif for Charles Bronson’s avenging angel, who was identified simply as “the man with the harmonica” in Sergio Leone’s landmark film. Yet that nickname really belongs to Franco De Gemini who has brought his distinctive sound from the background to the foreground in more than 800 movie scores in his lifetime.  His talent for expressing conflicting emotions through his music in both minimalist and operatic arrangements is this composer’s secret weapon.

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Woody’s Benediction

His name was Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode and he was a football star, a professional wrestler, a WWII veteran and a famous Hollywood character actor who should have become a star. But the closest Woody Strode ever got to playing the leading role in an American film was Sergeant Rutledge (1960), in which he portrayed the title character but was fourth billed after Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Tower and Billie Burke. In an ironic twist that makes sense in a Pre-Civil Rights Hollywood, Strode had to travel to Italy to finally receive top billing and the only genuine leading role of his career in Black Jesus (1968) aka Seated at his Right (the Italian title is Seduto alla sua Destra). It is probably one of his least known films but easily his biggest role and possibly his best performance.      

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Voyeur Villa

Sometimes a film poster doesn’t offer enough information to let you know what kind of movie to expect. Take, for example, Eyes Behind the Wall (Italian title: L’occhio dietro la parete, 1977). The Italian poster suggests it might be an erotic drama with its image of an older man touching the exposed thigh of a younger woman. The background paraphernalia and laboratory setting could also indicate a sci-fi or horror premise. The American poster for the film displays a demented face, an oversize bloody knife and a topless female victim in the style of a trashy giallo. The simple truth is that Eyes Behind the Wall is hard to classify and doesn’t easily fit into any specific genre although you could file it under Eurotrash. While the film is problematic in many regards, it still manages to be consistently intriguing and unpredictable.

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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).    Continue reading