Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Massacre Time

Many Spaghetti Western titles are more entertaining than the actual film. Directed by future horror maestro Lucio Fulci, Massacre Time (1967) tries to enliven its mayhem with sadistic violence, but only fitfully succeeds.

Prospector Tom Corbett (Franco Nero) visits his old hometown of Laramie. He finds that local landowner Scott (Giuseppe Addobbati) runs it as a fiefdom, with his sadistic son Junior (Nino Castelnuevo) running roughshod over miners and farmers alike. Tom teams with his estranged brother Jeff (George Hilton) to fight the Scotts, leading to violence and shocking revelations.

At least Massacre Time tries to offer something beyond typical Spaghetti tropes. Fulci apes Anthony Mann showing Scott and Junior arguing over the latter's depravity, contrasting with Tom and Jeff's equally rough relationship. But the plot doesn't amount to much, even when it's revealed that Tom is Scott's son, and everything's predictable. Fulci's mostly content garnishing the story with overwrought violence, from an opening where Junior's dogs tear a Mexican to shreds, or a violent whip fight between Tom and Junior.

Franco Nero's uncommonly bland hero (borrowing Clint Eastwood's get-up from A Fistful of Dollars) isn't very compelling; George Hilton as his irreverent brother fares better. They make a respectable enough team. Nino Castelnuevo makes a compelling villain, with elegant white suit and his head perpetually cocked to one side; Giuseppe Addobbati offers contrast as his harried, well-intentioned father.

Massacre Time should appease Spaghetti Western buffs seeking their surfeit of ultraviolence. Despite its pedigree and stabs at complexity, Fulci's film is mostly unmemorable.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Keoma

For those who like their Spaghetti Westerns with a shot of strangeness, Keoma (1976) fits the bill. Enzo G. Castellari's experimental oater places a close second to Django Kill! on the Spaghetti weirdness scale, watchable in its overwrought perversity.

Keoma Shannon (Franco Nero) is a half-Indian gunslinger returning from the Civil War. He discovers a mining town overrun by mine boss Caldwell (Donald O'Brien) and his goons, including Keoma's hateful half-brothers. Helped by his father William (William Berger) and childhood friend George (Woody Strode), Keoma takes on Caldwell, rescuing condemned damsel Liza (Olga Karlatos) in the process.

Keoma came near the end of the Spaghetti boom, seeming both familiar and singularly strange. Franco Nero could play his mysterious avenger in his sleep, with an introduction and industrial-scale gun downs worthy of Django. The town overrun by crooks is a familiar Spaghetti story, with a subplot about quarantined plague victims similar to the vagrants in The Great Silence, scapegoats for the murderous baddies. Guido and Maurizio De Angelis's soundtrack, overwrought hippie ballads sung in phonetic English by Italians, is more laughable than compelling.

Yet Keoma isn't quite like other Westerns. Castellari's style verges on surrealism, with slow motion violence, elliptical flashbacks and flashy long takes. Keoma wears hippie-style clothes and hair while suffering crucifixion on a wagon wheel. There's also a mysterious witch (Gabriella Giacobbe) who materializes periodically to save him. Between its gun battles Castellari ham-fistedly evokes American racism, with Keoma suffering "half-breed" taunts and George enduring epithets. But the weirdness resonates more than the message.

Credit Castellari at least for originality. Nowhere else will you hear an Italian Tom Waits sound alike repeatedly crooning "Wanna die?" on the soundtrack. Or a gunfight scored to a woman's birthing cries. Only Keoma offers these singular delights.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Most Beautiful Wife

"We're not on Earth to be happy, Francesca!"
Damiano Damiani's The Most Beautiful Wife (1971) seems curiously topical. Commendable in its tasteful presentation of sensational material, it mirrors debates on gender politics and rape culture we'll still having a half-century later.

Fourteen year old Francesca Cimarosa (Ornella Muti) gains the attention of Vito Juvara (Alessio Orano), nephew of a Sicilian Mafioso (Amerigo Tot). When Francesca rebuffs Vito's advances, Vito rapes Francesca. Then he tries to force her into marriage, a traditional customer that will redeem her honor. Francesca refuses, incurring Vito's wrath, the scorn of locals and her parents' distrust. Undeterred, Francesca presses charges against Vito, at risk to herself and her family.

Based on the real case of Franca Viola, The Most Beautiful Wife sounds like a chintzy Lifetime movie. Fortunately, Damiani opts for restraint, keeping Francesca's rape off-screen and avoiding romanticization. Vito's attention builds from flirtation to abduction, turning a crush into a nightmare. Damiani stages a nightmarish engagement party, with Francesca terrified by Vito's boisterous, hard-drinking family (with Ennio Morricone's music, infused with soprano and Jew's harp, adding a discordant note). The only forced scene has Francesca burning her father's barn to spur action, an invention that seems overwrought.

Damiani offers a few gangster film tropes, notably a subplot where Vito deals with a treacherous hitman (Joe Sentieri). But Wife's mainly concerned with attacking Sicilian patriarchy, cornering a centuries-old custom that consigns women to property. Sicily's patriarchal laws allow a rapist to marry their victim and avoid prosecution. Vito intimidates Francesca's suitor and murders the family goat, knowing he's untouchable. His assault consigns Francesca to dishonor; if she refuses to marry him, she's a "defiled" woman ostracized by society, his action a youthful indiscretion.

Francesca endures mockery from police, insults from her parents (terrified of Vito's family) and threats from townspeople. Vito claims he broke off the marriage because she wasn't a virgin, an explanation the town readily swallows. Who'd believe a teenaged girl about rape? Francesca stands tall against physical threats and the social assault on her dignity. More headstrong teenager than witting feminist, her defiance and determination nonetheless wins us over.

Ornella Muti, just fourteen during filming, makes a striking heroine. Muti is a very credible teenager, never seeming too smart or socially engaged; she's an unwitting heroine unwilling to back down. Alessio Orano is a preening creep, masking sociopathy behind glaring eyes and a silky smile. Tano Cimarosa makes an impression as Francesca's disbelieving father. Amerigo Tot, the Hungarian sculptor-actor recognizable from The Godfather Part II, plays Vito's uncle.

If The Most Beautiful Wife were set in 19th Century Italy or a Middle Eastern theocracy, its story might seem shocking but comfortably distant. But Franca Viola's case is only 50 years old, the law that enabled it not repealed until 1981. And we still feel echoes of the cultural misogyny that ostracizes victims while excusing their attackers.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Last Days of Mussolini

Benito Mussolini's downfall makes for a gripping drama in Last Days of Mussolini (1974), also known as The Last Four Days. Director Carlo Lizzani skillfully recreates the last days of Fascist Italy, offering a complex plot and Rod Steiger's excellent acting.

In April 1945, Benito Mussolini (Rod Steiger) has been reduced to puppet ruler of the Salo Republic, under Germany's direct supervision. With the Axis collapsing, Mussolini plots his escape to Switzerland, using Cardinal Schuster (Henry Fonda) as an intermediary with the Allies. Unfortunately, neither the Americans nor the antifascist partisans have any interest in letting Mussolini escape. Along with his mistress Claretta Petaci (Lisa Gastoni), Mussolini's captured by partisans who debate his fate. Finally, the Italian government sends Colonel Valerio (Franco Nero) to execute the dictator.

Eschewing depraved fascist allegory common to '70s filmmakers, Lizzani opts for sober historicity. Last Days does indulge a few art flourishes, including flashbacks to Mussolini's wartime leadership and a montage of car radios blaring martial music and English, Italian and German announcers, clunky symbolism of the movie's competing factions. Otherwise the movie's relatively subdued, filming on historical locations in northern Italy, including Giulino where Mussolini met his fate.

Lizzani and cowriter Fabio Pittoru creditably craft a human Mussolini. He grows to distrust his advisors, who promise armies of supporters when only a few die hards remain. Marshal Graziani (Rodolfo Del Pra) negotiates with the Allies behind his back and the Germans hold Mussolini under virtual arrest. Shedding his bluster, Mussolini has few delusions about his situation and merely hopes to survive. He's reduced to trying to maintain dignity amidst betrayal from his friends and humiliating capture.
Meanwhile, a complex struggle over the dictator's fate rages. The partisans want Mussolini dead but squabble over how and where to do it. Americans send a commando team to intercept Mussolini, planning a war crimes trial. Yet the Americans also seem receptive to a fascist functionary's argument that Mussolini could help prevent a Communist takeover of Italy. Hence Valerio, a no-nonsense soldier who cuts through the red tape with single-minded determination. He brandishes weapons at bureaucrats and convenes an ad hoc tribunal to sanction Mussolini's death.

The ending resembles Nicholas and Alexandra, juxtaposing Mussolini's captivity with arguments about his fate. Valerio wears down resistance to his mission, while the partisans reroute him to a village as American troops approach. Valerio argues about the imperative of punishing Mussolini before postwar compromises. Mussolini and Claretta try and comfort each other under their captors' watchful eyes. When the end finally comes it's both farcical and tragic, though Lizzani spares us the dictator's postmortem mob mutilation.

Rod Steiger gives a creditably restrained performance, showing Mussolini as both arrogant yet realistic about his chances. Steiger grants small moments - his shame at wearing a German uniform, asking partisans for Claretta's privacy - a gravitas that broader acting would have lost. Steiger reprised the role in Lion of the Desert (1981). Franco Nero is perfectly cast, making Valerio a tough man of action exasperated with bureaucratic niceties. Lisa Gastoni is effective, her shrill obsession giving way to touching loyalty. Henry Fonda's role is nondescript and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart isn't a convincing American.

Where Adolf Hitler's downfall was a depraved gotterdamerung, Mussolini's seems more recognizable: self-serving yet defiant to the end, a victim of his own hubris. Too monstrous to be tragic, his dreams of a modern Roman Empire makes his final throes seem pathetic.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Le Notti Bianche

"Never trust anyone, especially if they are in love."
After the overblown Senso (1954), Luchino Visconti returned more measured material. Le Notti Bianche (1957) updates Dostoyevsky's White Nights to postwar Italy, an achingly beautiful exploration of love.

Two lost souls meet on a Venice bridge. Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) is a transplanted newcomer from the countryside. Natalia (Maria Schell) is reclusive, dominated by her mother and pining after her lost love (Jean Marais). The two meet over the course of several nights, Natalia reluctant to return Mario's affection. She insists that her lover will return, but can't help growing closer to Mario.

Le Notti Bianche trades Senso's Technicolor spectacle for black-and-white, yet stands even further from reality. Visconti shoots within a Cinecitta soundstage, emphasizing its artificiality with Giuseppe Rotunno's crane shots and zooms. He shows airy gray sky trickling snow, bright streets and picturesque canals alternating with smoky bars and alleys hosting vagrants and prostitutes. One striking edit pans from Natalia and Mario chatting to a flashback of her last meeting with her lover, within the same shot.

This marks a visual component to Visconti's romantic cynicism. Natalia's stories play like a fairy tale, even though Visconti shoots her beau in the shadows, a handsome cipher intimating a criminal past. She harbors conflicting desires for tangible friendship and true love, returning to the same street corner each night. While she attends opera with her lover, she awkwardly dances with Mario in a bar playing Bill Haley and the Comets. In her flashbacks Natalia speaks only in narration, her self-image as ephemeral as everything else.

Mario finds Natalia lovely but exasperating, obsessed with her fantasies and indifferent to his own. While he tries recounting his own interests, Natalia's distracted by dancing patrons. Visconti plays these scenes with a light touch unusual for him; it's a charmingly awkward date recalling Marty's well-matched misfits. When she finally opens up to him, a snowstorm conferring Heaven's blessing. Then comes a climactic gut punch that unravels everything.

Marcello Mastroianni is fine as always, playing Mario's exasperation as humorous and heartwarming, tragic when needed. But Maria Schell dominates the show. Her Natalia could seem flighty or ridiculous, but Schell's warm smile, naked emotion and vulnerability sell her foibles. Jean Marais seems as menacing as romantic in his flashbacks; Clara Calamai plays a prostitute who tricks Mario into an ill-fated tryst.

Ultimately, Le Notti Bianche's tragedy is mainly Mario's. If Natalia seems deluded, Mario imagines their relationship as romance, setting himself up for disappointment. Visconti shows his exit in long shot as a friendly dog accosts him, scant consolation for his dashed moment of happiness.