The Hawks and the Sparrows: a rambling road movie enquiry into the social and political conflicts of Italian society in the 1960s

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Hawks and the Sparrows / Uccellacci e Uccellini” (1966)

A bit confusing and rambling, this road movie about a father and his son roaming aimlessly through Italy is an investigation of the social and political conflicts that threaten to pull 1960s-period Italian society apart, in particular the conflicts between the Roman Catholic Church and modern secular society at the time, and the conflicts between landowners and working-class rural folk. The Italian comedian Toto and Ninetto Davoli play the father Innocenti Toto and son Ninetto who have several unusual adventures on their walking journey. Along the way they are joined by a talking raven (voiced by Francesco Leonetti) who represents a left-wing intellectual tradition strong on rational thinking and who comments on the men’s backgrounds and the adventures they have taken or are about to take.

First up, the raven tells the men a fable about two mediaeval monks (Toto and Davoli) sent out by St Francis of Assisi to convince hawks and sparrows to accept God in their lives and live with love. This requires an extreme ascetic life-style lasting well over a year but finally the two monks master the languages of the birds and broadcast the Gospel among them. Yet no matter how earnestly they teach the birds, the birds are still at the mercy of their instincts and habits, the hawk still kills the sparrow for food, and St Francis pressures the two monks to try harder to convince the birds to overcome their natures and live in peace.

The fable takes up about half the film’s running time and the other stories that follow are not nearly so deep or complex. In two scenes, Toto and Ninetto threaten to evict a poverty-stricken family from their farmhouse if the money the mother owes the two men is not forthcoming, and Toto and Ninetto themselves are threatened when they appeal to their landlord to have mercy and waive their debts and the landlord refuses. The duo also meet a travelling troupe of actors representing minority groups in Italy and watch the troupe perform a play that is forced to end when one of the actors goes into labour and must deliver her baby. Not long after Toto and Ninetto witness the baby’s birth, they are caught up in crowds following the cofin of a local Italian celebrity figure. Later the two men take turns dallying with a prostitute (Femi Benussi) before being overcome by hunger and greed while looking at the raven …

The film is in neo-realist style, using non-actors to play most roles, and with some very stunning cinematography work showing off landscapes and featuring close-ups of people’s rugged faces. Toto and Davoli are fine actors just as much at home with Marxist notions on the nature of class-based struggle and the clash of Marxist ideology, Roman Catholic dogma and human nature, as they are with slapstick humour that owes a debt to old Charlie Chaplin silent films. The film flows smoothly and well, with each skit blending seamlessly into the next with no break in pace, mood or character.

It does try to say a lot within its 88 minutes, maybe too much for its length and road-movie fantasy narrative. Most contemporary Western viewers would be confused by the way Pasolini sets out the Marxist premise only to subvert it with examples of human greed. Pasolini fails to appreciate that much human greed is itself culturally shaped by societies and cultures that exalt greed, individual competition or low animal cunning that takes advantage of others or manipulates them as worthwhile values. The adventures of Toto and Ninetto might best have been served in a mini-series format that could have explored and explained in more depth and detail, at a level and pace suited to mainstream audiences, Marxist philosophy and its aims, and how it might adapt to or change the Italian society and culture of Pasolini’s times.

The Gospel According to St Matthew: a minimal neo-realist tale of struggle against corruption and injustice

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Gospel According to St Matthew / Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo” (1964)

Perhaps more historically accurate or Biblically faithful films – or even just better acted films – have been made about the life of Jesus Christ but few of them surely can match Pasolini’s retelling for power and intensity. Opting for a minimal realist approach using non-professional actors with working-class southern Italian backgrounds, Pasolini draws out the gospel’s message of Jesus’ struggle for social justice against a corrupt religious leadership and the price he had to pay for breaking social conventions and standing up to corrupt hierarchical power and injustice. Shorn of all religious associations, Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui, aged 19 years at the time) is presented as an intense and charismatic young revolutionary who nevertheless is not without his contradictions and his moments of doubt and even loss of hope.

The gospel is presented as it is in the Bible, in a series of tableaux and impressions with a heavy focus on close-ups of actors’ faces in their distinctive rough-hewn and weathered glory as befits the working-class people who rallied to Jesus’ call and preaching all those centuries ago. The near-desert environment and the urban landscapes with their rabbit warren buildings clinging to hillsides and linked by labyrinthine streets give the film an exotic otherworldly appearance in which a man powered by divine spirit truly might walk among mortals. Unusual camera angles, abrupt edits, long periods of silence and faces that look so implacable and emotionless that they might have been carved out of Mt Rushmore add to the film’s alien yet matter-of-fact tone.

Filming on the proverbial shoe-string budget means that fancy special effects are out of the question, yet deft editing and imagination take care of scenes where special effects might be called for: the five loaves and the two fishes miraculously feed the crowds gathered around Jesus in a way that comes over as completely natural and straightforward yet audiences can still go slack-jawed at the clever editing involved. The Devil appears as an unassuming traveller and the visions he presents to Jesus to tempt him look completely realistic.

The film’s pace may be very uneven and some significant scenes in Jesus’ life go missing for unexplained reasons. At times the film does drag but after the man is betrayed and arrested by soldiers, the movie starts to move much faster. That the acting ranges from indifferent to bad should be no surprise – all the actors are amateurs after all – and this focuses audience attention on to the film’s message itself and the way it presents Jesus as a mostly serious and uncompromising leader whose compassion appears rarely and briefly. (But when it does appear, it seems more genuine than if it were to appear frequently.)

The musical soundtrack is very eclectic with selections from Afro-American gospel music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Congolese Christian folk music.

The film does not attempt to interpret the gospel narrative but gives a bare-bones rendition of it. Some viewers may find parts of it long and boring. Whatever prior knowledge of the gospel stories people bring to their viewing of the film, they are likely to come away with strong feelings about the film. The minimal neo-realist presentation, the stark setting and the casting of rural workers with no prior acting experience in several roles strip away sentimentality and what we get is a classic story of one man’s heroism against an oppressive system and a message of hope.

The Battle of Algiers: excellent and powerful film dramatisation of the Algerian drive for independence

Gillo Pontecorvo, “The Battle of Algiers / La Bataille d’Alger / La Battaglia di Algeri” (1965)

Filmed 50 years ago, this Italian film drama of the Algerian independence struggle against France in the late 1950s remains as relevant today in the post-9/11 world as it did for audiences living during the decline and end of the colonial era when Britain and France gave up their empires in Africa and Asia. The film, influenced by the Italian neo-realism pioneered by Roberto Rossellini and other directors in the 1950s, combines crisp, matter-of-fact drama, imaginative and brilliantly shot cinematography, excellent acting, a highly evocative music soundtrack and a plot left deliberately sketchy to emphasise the film’s messages, of which the most important is that a people’s desire for liberation and independence will always succeed in spite of the repression it is subjected to.

The bulk of the film follows a young man, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), from his early life as street thief who becomes radicalised as a freedom fighter when as a prisoner he witnesses the guillotining execution of a political prisoner. After being released, he applies to join the National Liberation Front (hereafter referred to as the FLN, its abbreviation in French) and is given a test by FLN leader Jaffar. The test confirms Ali’s commitment and from then on he is part of a clandestine network of cells in which each member knows only three others: the person who recruited him and the two people he is required to recruit.

The film does not dwell much on Ali’s advancement to the topmost level but instead follows various resistance fighters who kill police officers as part of a general protest against the forces of law and order who are the front-line of the colonial society that treats the Algerian people as serfs and denies them access to their own lands and resources. The film clearly shows the segregated nature of the city of Algiers: Europeans live in one part which revels in wealth and leisure while the majority Arabs and Berbers are forced to live in crowded labyrinthine conditions in old buildings with primitive infrastructure and transport. The French drive cars while the Arabs and Berbers must still use animals for transport. The murders of the police officers lead to greater repression and the police themselves resort to bombing a section of the Muslim quarter. People die and from then on, the FLN uses terrorism, encapsulated in a section of the film where three Muslim women doll themselves up in Western clothes and carry bombs into cafes and an Air France office, to protest the continuing brutality. Violence from one side begets violence from the other until Paris sends in Colonel Matthieu (Jean Martin) to impose martial law on the suffering Algerians. Determined to wipe out the FLN, Matthieu resorts to arresting and torturing people to gather information about the FLN, and systematically hunts down its members until he and Ali La Pointe finally confront each other in a chilling and cold-blooded climax.

The contrast between the Algerians’ poverty and the colonialists’ lavish lifestyle is highlighted by the cinematography which captures the paranoia and terror the Algerians feel as French rule becomes ever more violent and intrusive. The music, composed jointly by Pontecorvo himself and renowned composer Ennio Morricone, also captures the terror and drama of the film. Scenes of torture are filmed in a sensitive manner that demonstrates the victim’s suffering without dwelling too much on the violence and gore.

While Pontecorvo is sympathetic towards the Algerians, the film shows both oppressors and oppressed as humans with all their flaws and good qualities. Ali, Jaffar and the other leaders of the FLN stubbornly hold out to the very end and Matthieu, for all his admiration of them, is steely in his determination to eradicate them. Surprisingly, Matthieu has the clearest understanding of the conflict between France and Algeria: the French are hell-bent on keeping Algeria as their colony and denying the Arabs and Berbers a share in the colony’s wealth. As long as this situation lasts, there will always be conflict and suppression. One would think that, having fought in the Resistance against Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Matthieu might sympathise with the Algerians’ desire for liberty; yet he puts his loyalty to France ahead of any feelings he may have for the Algerian cause or the admiration he has for individuals like Ben M’hidi, one of the FLN leaders, for his moral stance. As the only actor in a cast of non-actors, Martin makes his colonel stand out as a man who suppresses his humanity and compassion for evil disguised as unquestioning loyalty to the State.

One aspect of the film that is not too clear is the role of the media in changing public opinion in France to favour and support Algerian independence which eventually pressured Paris to grant Algeria its freedom in 1962. Apart from that, the film shows how the colonial authorities use propaganda to try to break the spirit of the Algerians. After destroying the FLN, the authorities obviously believe they have broken the back of the independence movement; unfortunately the film does not go on to say (and this is a major weakness of “The Battle …” and the structure of its plot) what the authorities did next, that might have resulted in a resurgence in the Algerians’ cry for  freedom and independence. One assumes that the French colonial authorities did not do much to give Algerians a greater say in their governance and control of their land and resources, but continued to harass them with police state brutality and petty bureaucratic regulations, and that the French living in Algeria continued to live in blithe ignorance of the tensions simmering even more among the people they treated as their servants.

The film’s complexity in its themes and technical values has stood the test of time, even if the actual visuals look dated. It has been used as a manual by both terrorist groups and governments alike, not always in the way that Pontecorvo and his cast would approve. Violence and brutality always beget more violence and brutality, and both bully and victim end up more traumatised and psychopathic in their natures. The film still has power to move contemporary audiences into sympathising with ordinary people’s desire to control their own lives and resources, and not to live as slaves.

The Leopard: a character study thin on political expediency and cynicism, and thick on glamour

Luchino Visconti, “Il Gattopardo / The Leopard” (1963)

A sumptuous film even by the glamorous standards of its time – and the 1960s did see a number of films that outdid one another in epic scope, technical details and casting – Visconti’s “The Leopard” is a snapshot of a dramatic period in Italy’s modern history, when for the first time in well over a thousand years the Italian peninsula became one country under one government. The narrative revolves around a noble Sicilian family and its political and social decline. Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster), scion of the princely Salina family, scents that the old ways of life are fading and that his family may pass into history unmourned and impoverished. He decides that his wayward nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) needs more than family connections and reputation to make his way in a new world that he himself doesn’t quite understand. The don’s hopes lie in Tancredi’s engagement and marriage to the beauteous Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of a nouveau riche mayor, Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa), who himself is of peasant stock. Much of the film hangs off this basic story structure of the two young people meeting and falling in love – much to the disgust of Don Fabrizio’s wife and the disappointment of their daughter Concetta who had hoped to marry Tancredi – and their courtship and engagement, and Angelica’s introduction into high society culminating in a banquet and an extended ballroom-dancing scene.

Filmed in and around Sicily, the movie boasts very beautiful and dramatic settings and often achieves a painterly look especially in scenes set in the rural outdoors. Much attention was paid to costuming and getting details of interiors right for the period in which the film is set. Visconti makes much of the contrasts between the lives of the old landed aristocracy in their palaces and of the common people dwelling in poverty and squalor. The film’s themes of mortality and decay are reflected in scenes inside the Salina family’s palace where there are empty rooms in states of ruin and faded glory, and in an early scene where the entire Salina family attends Mass and the camera pans over their faces: tired, grey-looking and almost mummified. There are scenes of fighting which can be spectacular and there is one brief scene of a hanged police spy.

The film works best though as a character study of a man who tries to maintain a foothold in a changing world with changing values by playing the system for what it’s worth and encouraging his nephew to do the same. At one point in the film, Don Fabrizio pressures the peasants on his estate into voting for a united Italy under King Victor Emanuele; at another point in the film, he refuses to serve in the Senate of the unified Italian government because of his beliefs about human nature and how it stubbornly clings to custom and tradition when there is change all around. Burt Lancaster does very well in the role of Don Fabrizio fighting to change history to be on his side – and losing because at the very moment his country most needs him, he turns away.  Alain Delon is less effective and a bit one-dimensional as Tancredi who is equally as slippery in his values: initially fighting with Garibaldi’s forces, later throwing in his lot with government forces and cheering at news that several of Garibaldi’s men have been executed by the new government troops. Through the characters of Don Fabrizio and Tancredi, the film suggests that clever individuals survive by guile and opportunism and as a result a society that evolves from the efforts of such people will lose something that uplifts humanity and culture, and end up morally impoverished. Cardinale does a creditable job playing Angelica who displays intelligence and insight as well as a combination of refinement and some vulgarity. Stoppa provides plenty of light relief as Don Calogero who realises that his daughter’s impending marriage into the aristocracy will bring him great renown as well as catapult up the social ladder and accordingly adopts airs and graces.

The pivotal scenes of the film in which Don Fabrizio confronts his mortality and his failure as a prince, head of a noble family and a man of supposed morality and integrity come in the film’s last hour when he is invited to join the new Italian government (and which invitation he refuses) and during the ballroom scenes where, lonely and depressed, he finds the gay and superficial chatter not at all to his liking. He seems drawn to Angelica (and she to him) and the scene in which they dance the mazurka together is as close as they get to sparking off an affair. After the ball ends, Don Fabrizio decides to return home on foot alone and he passes into a dark passageway in a village as if Death is already beckoning him.

It is a pity that at this point the movie ends whereas the original novel continues into a distant future in which Don Fabrizio lives another 20 years after the ball, his daughter Concetta becomes an embittered spinster and Tancredi and Angelica’s marriage, for which Don Fabrizio had high hopes, ends up as sour and estranged as Don Fabrizio’s own marriage did. It turns out that Tancredi still secretly loves Concetta but an incident between them just after they first meet Angelica – and which is included in the film in the conversation Tancredi has with Angelica at the dinner table – drove the two cousins apart forever.

The movie does assume that viewers have a good knowledge of Italian history as characters discuss the general political situation of the time and the name of Garibaldi is bandied about quite a lot. The culture of 19th century Sicily with its heavy emphasis on religious devotion may seem alien to a generation of viewers for whom Catholicism and religious worship hardly figure in their lives even on Sundays.

For its length, the plot and its themes are stretched quite thin and the politics that inform the plot are treated in a fragmented and superficial way. The film tends to be rather too self-indulgent and a little too in love with the Sicilian landscapes, rustic villages and palaces, and the lives of the upper class during the 19th century. The banquet scenes especially could have been tightened up further with more time given over to Don Fabrizio’s brooding as he returns home. Perhaps the film works best as a companion piece to the original novel (which I confess I haven’t yet read) to highlight its concerns.



The Case of the Bloody Iris: trashy serial killer entertainment set in a changing Italy during the early 1970s

Giuliano Carnimeo, “The Case of the Bloody Iris” (1971)

Known also as “What are those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?”, this flick is representative of a unique Italian film genre known as giallo. Giallo films are noted mainly for their combination of psychological thriller and horror, and for featuring much violence and gore, beautiful camera work, a theatrical and often operatic style, and sometimes distinctive and highly expressive musical soundtracks; there will be liberal amounts of female nudity and undercurrents of sexual perversion. The standard plot revolves around a serial killer who preys on beautiful women and butchers them in horrible ways while the victims are in highly vulnerable or compromising situations, and the story will often have a twist ending in which the sociopath killer’s identity is revealed. Themes of isolation, alienation and derangement run through the films.

The plot of “The Case of the Bloody Iris” is as flaky as can be and the film depends on its cast of sometimes bizarre characters, colourful settings, cinematography and various embellishments that actually don’t add anything of value to impress viewers. Two young women are found murdered in a block of apartments. Not long after the second woman is found dead, her apartment is sold to a third young woman, Jennifer (Edwige Fenech), who is escaping her domineering ex-husband. Former hubby runs a strange sex cult that emphasises group sex and he wants her back; Jennifer resists him and he threatens violence. In the meantime, she and bubbly blonde (and equally bubbly-brained) flatmate Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) are being stalked by the serial killer. The police do what they can to track the killer. While the killer remains at large, Jennifer becomes acquainted with her apartment neighbours who include a woman living with her estranged father and an elderly widow with a disfigured son. Jennifer also meets the building’s architect Andrea (George Hilton) who is averse to the sight of blood. Any one of these people could be the killer – and the killer has designs on Jennifer and Marilyn!

There is plenty of suspense in this hokey thriller, aided and abetted by stunning cinematography with the camera often at weird angles and plenty of voyeuristic shots. The jazz-influenced music is distinctive with harpsichord riffs looping over and over. The film’s characters come straight out of soap opera territory with their stereotyped behaviour. Red herrings abound as do gratuitous nudity and a sub-plot revolving around the two investigating police officers and their banter over how well one of them works and the other guy’s stamp collection.

For all the gore and sex that I’d been warned about, there’s not that much violence and when violence does occur, there is considerable and graphic blood-letting done in stylish manner; likewise there are bare breasts but full frontal nudity is non-existent. For a B-grade thriller, the movie is well-made with a good pace and a deft touch in its narrative structure and inclusion of humour to leaven the suspense though the climax is not at all credible and feels derivative and tacked-on.

Hitchcockian influences include bird’s-eye views of spiral staircases, one of which is needed for the climax; a widow and her strange son; and incompetent and possibly corrupt police. General themes of big city alienation and isolation, corruption in society and the notion of women as the source of temptation leading to sin loom large. These may have been underlying concerns in Italian society while the country was undergoing major social, political and economic changes during the second half of the 20th century.

The film turns out to be good-looking and stylish trash entertainment with its lead actress Fenech an incredibly stunning lovely lady with long black hair and flawless features. After forty years, “… Bloody Iris” does not look at all outdated though the misogyny and homophobia that  appear may rankle with audiences. For anyone who has never seen a giallo film before, “… Bloody Iris” is heartily recommended as an introduction to the genre.

The Name of the Rose: quite good if underrated adaptation of a literary novel with some extra features

Jean-Jacques Annaud, “The Name of the Rose” (1986)

Based on Umberto Eco’s novel of the same name, this film is a very good if underrated adaptation of a highly literary novel. The novel’s appeal is in the way it turns the traditional murder mystery on its head: clues found by its hero, William of Baskerville, lead him to solve the mystery but once he does so, he realises that the clues in themselves and the pattern they created were entirely unrelated to the actual mystery itself, and that it was sheer accident that he managed to solve the mystery. Thus the quest for closure, finality and meaning is revealed to be something we humans impose on otherwise random and meaningless events and incidents. Of course such a premise a popular crime mystery flick won’t make, so director Annaud chose only those elements of the novel that were most adaptable to the format and demands of a popular murder mystery and with the help of three script-writers and a talented cast fashioned a movie. “The Name of the Rose” is not a bad result at all and perhaps with the passage of time might be seen as a classic.

William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his assistant Adso (Christian Slater) arrive at a monastery in northern Italy to attend a conference that will determine the future of their Franciscan order. While there, William is called upon to investigate a series of mysterious suicides and murders of several monks in the monastery’s cloisters. He and Adso quickly find that a small group of monks has been reading a particular book written by the Greek philosopher Aristotle on the use of laughter and comedy to teach and illuminate certain important truths. Further investigations lead to the discovery of a vast, secret, labyrinthine library filled with books William has only ever heard of, and the discovery fills him with delight. Of course, several villains and a few sub-plots derail William and Adso’s quest, and most notable of the villains in particular is the inquisitor Bernardo Gui (F Murray Abraham) who has crossed swords with William in the past and who, on meeting him again, is eager to trip up William and his inquiring, analytical mind once and for all with the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church behind him. William faces the very real possibility of being declared a heretic and ending up on a pyre along with a number of other characters, most notably a hunch-backed monk Salvatore (Ron Perlman) and a feral peasant girl (Valentina Vargas) with whom Adso falls in love.

In two hours the film captures something of the oppressive and paranoid atmosphere of the period during which the Church was the final arbiter and keeper of all knowledge and people were prevented from learning, discovering and interpreting information and knowledge for themselves. The monastery is remote in culture as well as in physical location and there is an all-pervasive atmosphere of grinding poverty and self-censorship. The library, when found, owes a great deal to the influence of Argentine short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. The film presents quite starkly the contrast between what William represents – reason, intellectual inquiry (and not a little pride), a scientific, logical approach to solving problems and giving people access to learning and education – and what Gui and several other monks in the film represent: the claim by an earthly institution to control all knowledge, even knowledge coming directly from God or other higher forces and to ensure its power over all humans by deliberately keeping them ignorant, unhappy and poor.

Connery does excellent work as the Sherlock Holmes character who thinks before he acts and revels in brain power over brawn; the William character is a huge contrast from other characters Connery has played in his career. Slater in his debut acting role is not bad but Adso is essentially a passive role and the young actor spends most of his time looking just plain puzzled. Perlman steals most of the scenes he’s in with a superb performance as the wretched and often quite demented Salvatore and upstages Abraham whose role is actually quite small and rather stereotypically villainous, given that he appears in the film’s second half. Most of the actors have distinctive, rugged features that fit them perfectly for their roles and for the sinister Gothic world in which the film’s events roll out.

The film isn’t completely faithful to the complex novel whose body count at the end has a rather different mix of characters than the film’s lot. A few issues and sub-plots that are an important part of the novel had to be jettisoned but the film’s plot is quite faithful to the book’s plot. The film adds its own concerns about religious bigotry and intolerance and the control of information by an elite, all of which create a world in which even a highly intelligent, sensitive and learned person may find impossible to survive in without running afoul of the self-styled guardians of order and gate-keepers of knowledge and being forced to pay dearly for being authentic. Both the film and the novel are best viewed as companion pieces that have their own commentaries on the nature of oppression and control of information and knowledge.

At the Mountains of Madness: ambitious adaptation of the famous H P Lovecraft story of the Cthulhu mythos

Michele Botticelli, “At the Mountains of Madness” (2011)

With the release of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” in 2012 and Guillermo del Toro’s resumption of the movie project “At the Mountains of Madness”, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to look at this Italian animated short film adaptation of the famous H P Lovecraft short story that spawned several generations of short stories, novels, other literary output, songs and entire albums of music based on the Cthulhu mythos. This film by Botticelli is a fairly reliable adaptation, give or take a few detals, of the original story and conveys a strong sense of awe, terror and anguish at the notion that humans were created by superior beings from another planet who might not necessarily regard their children with love, affection or respect but instead might treat us as slaves or toys, and that the universe itself is hostile, even malevolent towards life on Earth.

As in the original story, the story here is told from a first-person POV by a scientist called Dyer. He and another scientist, Frederick Lake, lead an expedition sponsored by Miskatonic University in the northeastern United States to Antarctica where they discover ruins of a civilisation so ancient, that its geological stratum history hints of its existence during the Pre-Cambrian Age before the evolution of insects and most other invertebrates. Professor Lake takes a group of people ahead but soon loses radio contact with Dyer’s group. Dyer and his men search for Lake’s group and stumble upon their camp; there, they find the bodies of Lake and the others, horribly mutilated, plus remains of other life-forms also dissected and not belonging to any known class of multi-cellular life on Earth. Dyer and pilot Danforth take their plane and investigate a range of mysterious mountains where they discover an enormous abandoned city of weird geometric architecture unlike anything built by humans. The two men land the plane and venture into the buildings where they see various hieroglyphic symbols and, having been trained at university to read these ancient writings (don’t ask me how the first human being to learn to read such works did it), read and interpret what is written.

It seems that in the age preceding Snowball Earth, a group of aliens called the Elder Things came to Earth and invented all known life-forms that gave rise to current familiar Earth creatures and vegetation. The Elder Things created a servant class of slug-like beings called shoggoths which then built the city of geometric forms for their masters. Not long after, a race of octopus-like creatures led by a giant boss mollusc called Cthulhu arrived on Earth and both these newcomers and the Elder Things start slugging it out seriously with bouts of green blood and organs hitting the screen. In desperation, the Elder Things invoke their powerful and dangerous gods to help them out and although the deities oblige their worshippers, their intervention comes with a heavy cost for the Elder Things: the gods decide they quite like Earth and make it their home. While the race of Cthulhu is banished beneath the oceans, the shoggoths acquire intelligence and rebel against their masters. Although the Elder Things crush the rebellion, their civilisation is degraded and becomes increasingly primitive and unable to cope with climate change in the form of Snowball Earth. The civilisation retreats to the mystery mountain range in Antarctica where the Elder Things eventually die out.

After learning the history of these alien creatures, Dyer and Danforth venture farther into the city (as you do in spite of the great danger awaiting you) and discover the remains of the last Elder Thing survivors. The two men narrowly escape being crushed by a shoggoth and their expedition flees back to the US. While Danforth suffers a mental breakdown and is committed to Arkham Asylum, Dyer lives in fear that very soon the stars in the sky will align and generate mysterious gravitational and electromagnetic forces that will revive the race of Cthulhu and bring it to the surface of the oceans. Presumably all hell will break loose as the humans don’t have any gods to call on for help, those deities having been silenced forever by Western Christian missionaries.

The animation style is very distinctive: although the backgrounds are beautifully imagined and realised, often in 3D, the characters, dogs, aeroplanes and other moving objects are rendered as two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, usually moving in the fashion of shadow puppets and their eyes and mouths moving only when absolutely necessary. The aliens are rendered quite faithfully to the original Lovecraftian concept of them, the shoggoths in particular as creepy and terrifying in their amorphous multi-eyed protoplasmic forms as in the literature. Scenes of flying planes across the mountains and into the cities are breath-takingly astounding; the Elder Things’ capital looks weird enough but the city of the Cthulhuan race is positively malevolent, all jagged edges and dark, rough-textured towers radiating fear and terror. The scenes of fighting are the highlight of the film: they are frightful and gory, and the scenes in which the Elder Things’ gods arrive and rip apart the Cthulhuan beings are horrific beyond words.

Where the film departs from the original story is in the denouement of the story: Dyer lives an isolated life, knowing his incredible story will never be believed yet fearful that the Cthulhuans will soon resurrect and restore their rule on Earth. Humans have even fewer defences than the Elder Things did and, thanks to Western civilisation and colonialism having wiped out most other cultures and their traditions, have lost their hot-line to their gods. How will humanity survive?

The film has great suspense, especially in its opening scenes of blizzard and painterly dioramas of the Antarctic wilderness. The music soundtrack can be very eerie and atmospheric in a slight sinister way, and suits the narrative well. Some of the special effects are extremely well done and startling for a film of this modest scale. Botticelli’s ambition to craft an animated version of the H P Lovecraft that respects the original and do it justice can be clearly seen.  Even though the animation often looks primitive, it demonstrates the stark truth, if that’s the right word, that we humans aren’t the only sentient, self-aware critters on this here planet and that we share it with beings far more intelligent and dangerous than we, and who would not hesitate to crush us out of existence.

The film is not very polished and some essential details of the Cthulhu mythos were left out but it’s a very enjoyable short and, until del Toro’s film is completed, it’s the best (if not the only) adaptation of the Cthulhu mythos I’ve seen. The story is taut and filled with tension though, as in Scott’s “Prometheus”, the scientists do some incredibly stupid things just so the plot can advance at a steady trot.


Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre: documentary makes case for war crime but provides no context for attack

Sigfrido Ranucci and Maurizio Torrealta, “Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre” (2005)

This 27-minute film plays like an extended news or current affairs report: it originally aired on Italy’s Radiotelevisione Italiana state government TV network on 8 November, 2005. It asserts that the weapons used during Operation Phantom Fury on the city of Fallujah in central Iraq in November 2004 were chemical weapons such as white phosphorus and other substances similar in nature to napalm which had been used during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.With a mix of newsreels, interviews with various parties including former US soldiers now turned activists, Iraqi civilians and Italian journalists, the film builds a case for war crimes against the people of Fallujah by US military forces.

The presentation is bare-bones straightforward with a shrill Arab music soundtrack that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the voice-over narration. Various issues that viewers will pick up include the murder of children by US forces (because children as young as 10 years of age were fighting the soldiers), the targetting and killing of journalists not embedded with US and Coalition forces, US marines shooting and killing wounded people and the deliberate neglect in reporting civilian casualties as a result of the pounding of the city. The film gradually homes in on reports of people suffering unusual injuries and of bodies of people and animals who suffer no outward injuries but have horrific internal wounds. Film footage of corpses with faces simply scorched and blackened or melted away appears and it seems that weapons that produce intense heat and burning have been used against them.

A major part of the film includes interviews with Jeff Engleheart and Garret Reppenhagen who say that the use of white phosphorus, which penetrates through layers of clothing and other protection to burn skin and which, if inhaled, will burn lungs and other internal organs, on Fallujah residents was intentional. However these activists and others who appear in the film did not participate in the Fallujah attacks. Other interviewees include two Italian women journalists who claim that US forces tried to prevent them from revealing what happened in Fallujah and British ex-Labour Party member Alice Mahon who criticised the UK government under Prime Minister Tony Blair for supporting the Iraq war.

Where the film suffers is in providing a historical context as to why the United States should have pounded Fallujah in the ferocious way it did. It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of information available at the time: the unhappy relationship between Fallujah and the US that led to the attacks in August and November 2004 on two separate occasions can be traced back to an incident in April 2003 in which city residents protested outside a school that had been taken over by US forces, demanding that the school be handed back to them so children could attend lessons. Soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing several and wounding many others. After a second protest during which US troops again fired on civilians, the city’s mood was sour and hostile. Into this situation in March 2004, a convoy guarded by four private military soldiers from Blackwater USA (later Xe Services, now Academi) arrived and was ambushed by Iraqis who lynched the four soldiers and mutilated their bodies. According to Jeremy Scahill in his book “Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army”, there is evidence that the four soldiers were set up by Blackwater USA as one of them had criticised his supervisor; normally a convoy such as theirs travelling into a hostile city must have eight soldiers guarding it, four in front and four at the back. The lynchings made worldwide headlines and prompted the US armed forces to launch an attack on Fallujah in August 2004 and the second attack in November 2004 (source: Wikipedia, various articles).

Since the attacks in 2004, doctors in Fallujah have reported that rates of cancer, leukaemia and birth defects in newborn babies have risen greatly and city officials have apparently advised female Fallujah residents not to have children. The sex ratios of newborn babies since 2004 have also become very skewed: normally in most places each year the number of boy babies born slightly exceeds the number of girls babies born (usually about 103 – 106 boys for every 100 girls) but in Fallujah, the post-2004 ratios had fallen to about 85 – 86 boys for every 100 girls. There are reports that the birth defects observed are consistent with exposure to depleted uranium (DU) radiation. As far as I know, only one scientific study on this subject has been carried out and back-up studies are needed to verify the results but it’s likely that any future studies will be affected by harassment from US-led forces.

If it can be proved that white phosphorus and/or other dangerous chemicals have been used on Fallujah and that the ongoing sufferings of the Fallujah residents can be attributed to the use of these weapons and DU ordnance, the US government and military at the time must be held responsible for war crimes and crimes against peace. In November 2011, a war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, found former US and UK leaders George W Bush and Tony Blair respectively guilty of crimes against peace against the Iraqi people; the tribunal judges intend to add Bush and Blair’s names to a war crimes register and pass on their findings to the signatory nations of the Rome Statute which established the International Court of Crimes (source: Wake Up World,




Salo or the 120 days of Sodom: gruelling film of corruption, unfettered freedom and abuse of power that turn humans into machines

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Salò or the 120 days of Sodom” / “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” (1975)

Grim and harrowing to watch but an excellent and actually quite beautiful film (visually anyway) about corruption, the abuse of power and how having absolute freedom in the sense of being free from social restraints and conventions reduces humans to robots: this is the stupendous “Salo o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” (“Solo or the 120 days of Sodom”). The film was Pasolini’s last before his lynching death in 1975 and is based on the Marquis de Sade’s “The 120 Days of Sodom” but set in Mussolini-ruled Italy in the early 1940s. Four fascist middle-aged captains of society known as the Bishop, the President, the Manager and the Duke, representing respectively the Church, government, industry and aristocracy, agree to marry one another’s teenage daughters (this decision signifies the incestuous links among the various elites of society) as the prelude to a series of debauched acts at a country villa. Gangsters are hired to abduct eighteen teenage boys and girls of good family background and bring them to the villa. Four brothel madams are also hired to tell tales of excessive sexual dissipation to psyche up the men, teenagers and soldiers into eager participation in various sexual acts that include coprophagia, sodomy, rape, a golden shower and unspeakable tortures.

The film divides into four sections: Antechamber of Hell, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit and Circle of Blood; and each section more or less begins with a woman or woman-like figure getting dressed and attending to one’s toilette. The film emphasises repetition which not only forces the viewer to become immersed in its proceedings but highlights the loss of vitality and creativity in fascist societies in which governments and the institutions allied with them insist on digging themselves and their people further into a pit of evil. In each section there is a mock wedding, of which the most memorable is the wedding that takes place in Circle of Shit as it’s followed by the reception in which shit is served to the guests. There is a highly ritualistic aspect to the activities that go on in the villa, to the point where everything seems highly fetishistic; and almost as fetishistic is the detail of the lavish furnishings and interiors of the villa and the care with which the adult characters often dress and comport themselves.

Plot as it exists is weak because it’s all about repetition as the four men descend deeper into their own degradation; each successive perversion delivers less satisfaction than the one before it. Rules set up to monitor and punish the teenagers for insubordination are eventually torn up and tossed away; all the teenagers are subjected to cruel and violent punishments in Circle of Blood. The acting seems quite stylised: the men declaim and talk at each other and everyone else and, save for a few soldiers and girls, no-one really communicates. Close-ups of actors’ faces are used frequently in the film and viewers see how deranged and terrifying the men, especially the Duke, look. Scenes often have a staged, diorama-like look, and the dining-room scene with the camera looking to the back of the room where there is a stair-case across the length of the table with people sitting on either side of it (but not at it) is repeated several times. Colours and outlines are fairly soft and the few outdoor scenes look soft enough as to be slightly melancholy. Although “Salo …” was made over 35 years ago, the film still has a contemporary look due in part to the open spaces of the villa, the sometimes minimalist, sometimes opulent style of the furniture, interiors and artwork used and the attention given to the actors’ clothes and accessories. Even the cars in the film don’t look very outdated though they are obviously of their period (early 1940s). The overall visual style of the film is precise and cold.

The pace is relentless with each successive violation and just when you think the film couldn’t get worse after the coprophagia and the golden shower scene, it goes up (or down?) another notch: our Gang of Four holds an arse inspection of the children and then dress in drag for yet another mock wedding ritual. In the Circle of Blood, the men’s moral corruption infects the children finally: they rat on one another, forcing the men to run about hysterically extirpating signs of rebellion about the villa. This section of the film details how the general public becomes desensitised to the abuse and corruption and willingly joins in.

The violence is not overt and is actually done tastefully and respectfully: all the torture scenes occur out of shot or are viewed elliptically through someone’s blocked point of view. Of course there is much nudity, male and female, but again actual scenes of sexual intercourse occur out of shot, in shadow or in a tasteful way. The violence and perversions usually serve a symbolic purpose: the consumption of human faeces may refer to the excessive emphasis on materialism in Western society and the use of a rule-book to punish young people in hideously sadistic ways might refer to bureaucracy as a mechanism for turning people into cyphers and robots.

Of all chilling moments in a film brimming with them, perhaps the worst comes at the end where the men take turns in watching the young people being tortured from the comfort of a plush chair in front of a window as though watching TV. The soldiers in the room yawn and engage in idle pastimes like dancing. This says something about entertainment in our lives: the more sensationalised and pornographic it is, the more numb and robotic we become, the more our vitality and creativity are sapped. And it’s obvious that the four libertines have become so jaded that they are unable to stop themselves wallowing in their own filth. Freedom is wasted on them: behaving as if governed by instinct, their minds and imaginations filled with pollution, the adults claw into their own rut deeper, digging their own graves as it were. Also horrific is the fact that none of the children rebel though the film makes clear they are repelled by what they have to do and two girls stage their own personal rebellion by secretly becoming lovers. (Note that most sexual activity in the film is done doggy-style with the libertines at times preventing or punishing sexual intercourse in the face-to-face missionary position, to prevent intimacy and individual expression.)

Insititutions like religion and education are mocked and overturned: the wedding rituals mock religion, important rites of passage and celebrations as joyful phenomena; the use of brothel madams to lecture the teenagers mocks the notion of education and acquiring wisdom from elders; the sexual activity mocks people generally when they have choice and live in a fairly wealthy society. All too often people choose the easy way out: a life of hedonism and immediate sensual pleasures with no compassion or generosity for others.

Forgive me for sounding perverse but I wish the film had continued beyond the two soldiers dancing: when all the children have been killed, what next would the libertines and the brothel madams do? In the closeted environment of the country villa, I envisage that they would bring in animals, in particular fine thoroughbred horses, on which to inflict acts of bestiality. This would symbolise the effects of fascism on the natural environment, how a political system that privileges an elite and allows it extreme freedom to indulge its selfish materialist appetites eventually plunders the Earth’s resources. Then Death becomes the ultimate option for satisfaction and what could be more appropriate for our Gang of Four, having sated themselves, to turn on one another with sexual, even cannibalistic, ferocity?

This is one film that continues to be more relevant than it was when it was first released: it is still a powerful criticism of Western democratic society as it is structured today, bleeding from the inside with governments, academia and news media increasingly beholden to private corporations and the military, and all presiding over populations that they force to consume ever more infantile and superficial culture. If ever a film came close to documenting the decline and fall of Western civilisation, “Salo …” is it.

Medea (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini): rich film of social analysis and the oppression of women

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Medea” (1969)

This film will always be a personal favourite of mine for its exploration of a human society and the kind of woman it produces, who, transplanted to another society built on completely different values which rob her of most of her powers save that of love, must respond with a terrible and deadly vengeance when the man she loves disowns her. “Medea” is based on Euripides’s play of the famous Greek legend in which Jason, attempting to claim his rightful inheritance as King of Thessaly from his uncle Pelias, is sent away by the other man to the Kingdom of Colchis on the eastern shores of the Black Sea to retrieve the famous Golden Fleece. Accompanied by a group of heroes (the Argonauts), Jason arrives in Colchis and meets Medea in a temple: they both fall in love. Medea helps Jason to steal the fleece and take it back to King Pelias who rejects it. The couple are forced to live in exile for ten years in Corinth where Jason, concerned for their sons’ future, decides to marry Glauke, the daughter of the King of Corinth, and repudiate Medea. Medea, furious at Jason’s betrayal, destroys his future happiness and leaves him a lonely and disconsolate man with nothing.

Everything about this film I find original and stupendous: it often has the look of an anthropological documentary and the most significant scenes are ones not in the original story. The centaur Chiron (Laurent Terzieff), who embodies both the rational, intellectual side of humanity and its savage, irrational animal side, tells Jason of his royal inheritance and predicts that he will travel overseas in search of the Golden Fleece. Here Pasolini tells us that thinking a thought and making it concrete in speech or (later) visualising it is a necessary first step in carrying it out: the concept precedes reality. An early highlight of “Medea” is a fertility ritual in which a young man is sacrificed while the royal family of Colchis including Medea (Maria Callas) undergo ritual humiliation from the common people. The sacrifice’s flesh and blood are used to bless and nurture the crops and the soil in the fields. Medea is revealed as the child of a society based on animism, ritual and attachment to symbolism, a society in which life serves the gods and every action demands a reaction and has consequences. People’s thoughts are governed by emotion, custom and impulse; identifying closely with nature and perceiving no boundaries between themselves and natural phenomena, folks may not always understand why they act the way they do – they see a sign from the gods and simply have to obey. The Golden Fleece possesses meaning and power for the citizens of Colchis. Jason (Giuseppe Gentile), coming from a society of reason, logic and intellect which perhaps is disconnected from its irrational, emotional side (he never seems to understand why he fell in love with Medea), steals the fleece but realises that once he takes it away from Colchis, the fleece means nothing to him or to his uncle. In Colchis also, Medea is powerful as a sorceress and speaks to the sun, the land and water; in Greece however, she loses her powers and is reduced to the role of a traditional housewife. The second significant scene is one in which Medea, dreaming, communes with the sun which energises her to plan her revenge against Jason: she leads her servants in a ritual in which her nurse, interrogating her, helps to rouse the necessary psychic energy she needs to carry out her plan to the full, subvert the social structure that took away her sorcery skills and reclaim her full feminine powers.

Symbolism is very powerful in this film: Medea’s clothes and her costume changes signify the various changes in roles she undergoes and indicate changes and developments in the film’s plot. The two deaths of Glauke are no mistake: the first death, in which she burns, is the visualisation of the spell Medea casts over the wedding gift for her; the second death in which Glauke leaps off a wall is the actual death. Glauke (Margareth Clementi) says nothing but her face reveals all: on donning the wedding clothes, she becomes aware of another woman’s anguish at having given up everything including her royal inheritance for love, only to be spurned. Overcome with guilt and grief, the girl commits suicide.

The acting is very naturalistic and convincing, and the casting is unusual: Callas in her mid-40s at the tail-end of her opera singing career is a mesmerising beauty and there are many camera shots and close-ups of her sculpted face and beautiful eyes as she sits or stands. Her face and body language alone – she has few lines of dialogue – convey the full range of Medea’s emotions from romantic love, lust, submission, motherly love and tenderness, despair and distress at betrayal and loss, and full-blown rage. This is acting as it should be done. Gentile, much younger than Callas and with no previous acting performance I know of – he was actually a triple jumper who won a medal at the 1968 Olympic Games – is astonishingly credible and uninhibited as Jason: lover, warrior, loving father, yet cynical enough to desert Medea for political reasons. As with Callas, Gentile is given little dialogue yet he seems a man of much substance and complexity.

The music is important to the film: Pasolini didn’t care too much about which cultures he nicked his music from so we are treated to Persian orchestral or Moroccan music, Japanese shamisen soloing, droning Tibetan Buddhist monk singing (reminiscent of Hungarian singer Attila Csihar when he performs with US drone metal band SunnO))) and its offshoot projects Grave Temple Trio and Burial Chamber Trio) and possibly folk music influences from Bulgaria and other lands. In scenes depicting Medea’s Colchis heritage, the male throat-singing roars and droning bugles come to the fore and they create a rich, sensuous, rippling sound. It’s creepy and exhilarating at the same time, pulsing with raw life-force.

Most scenes are shot like dioramas and the rich and sometimes static look of the film invites comparison with Sergei Parajanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates”, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and some Kenneth Anger films I’ve seen. A golden sheen suffuses the film with many scenes apparently shot at sunset and twilight. The flavour is exotic with a fresh, raw feel that comes with the use of non-actors and much improvisation, and the desert settings (much of the film was made in Turkey) take viewers back to a time when civilisation had barely begun to spread across the eastern Mediterranean region.

The social analysis hidden in this film – Pasolini had socialist views and disliked materialism and globalisation – makes the left hemisphere of my brain reel excitedly while the right side is enthralled with the film’s layered beauties, the sights and sounds, and distinctive style. Pasolini must have known one day that I would watch the film for it seems perfectly made for someone like me; but that’s the way I believe great films should be done – they should be done for yourself and for maybe five other people on the entire planet who think the way you do and hold the values you hold.