Don’t Torture a Duckling: behind the sensationalism, a surprisingly thoughtful and critical film

Lucio Fulci, “Don’t Torture a Duckling / Non si sevizia un paperino” (1973)

Fret not, no ducklings, nor indeed any animals, were harmed in the making of this giallo film which, under cover of admittedly gratuitous nudity, violence and gore, is actually a serious examination of the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude towards sexuality and of the insularity and poverty of a small rural Sicilian village and the complacency, ignorance and corruption that exist as a result. A series of murders of young boys in the town attracts media attention from all over Italy and reporter Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) is sent by his newspaper employer in Rome to investigate. Police quickly find various suspects: the local village idiot Giuseppe (Vito Passeri) and gypsy witch Magiara (Florinda Bolkan), whom the police quickly find are innocent of the murders when more murdered boys are found. Martelli follows the police case and offers some insights to the main investigators; he also befriends a young woman, Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), whom he recognises from having seen old photographs of her in newspapers back home, and who is currently lying low in her dad’s mansion in the wake of a drug scandal. The villagers dislike Patrizia for her modern fashions and she becomes a suspect in the murders in their eyes. Martelli also meets the local priest, Don Alberto (Marc Porel), who runs a boys’ group at the church and gets them to play football in the church grounds to keep them out of mischief; for this, the villagers admire him.

Viewers can smell from a mile away who the serial killer is likely to be: sure as heck, the killer turns out to be the one person everyone least suspects. Fulci throws in plenty of red herrings to keep viewers guessing as to who the killer might be: the young bored woman who flaunts her naked body to the wide-eyed youngsters? the reporter who tampers with the crime scene? the town idiot who buries one child’s body and pitifully tries to extort a ransom from his parents? the witch who makes voodoo dolls in the likeness of three boys and stabs the dolls? the mad woman with the mentally retarded daughter? Significantly, Fulci doesn’t play fair with viewers and the killer’s identity is only revealed with a plot twist. On the other hand, the plot moves smoothly and surely to the climax which fittingly takes place on top of a mountain with stunning views of the Sicilian countryside: quite literally, a place between heaven and earth, and the serial killer falling to his death (and by implication, to Hell) in a suitably gory way.

While the acting is average, and a couple of actors go over the top, the plot nevertheless is unsettling (even if some of its details don’t quite gel) and the cinematography is very effective in drawing out the horror, the violence and above all the ignorance and superstitious character of the villagers. Modernity at times is but a slim cover for the deeply irrational nature of the people, evinced in their hysteria over the boys’ deaths and their unwavering, unquestioning loyalty to the Church. Even the police, for all their supposed expertise, are not immune to arresting people simply because they are outsiders, despised by their community.

The killer’s motivation that children should be despatched to Heaven to preserve their innocence and prevent them from maturing and gaining sexual awareness (which might lead them into sin) might seem shocking to modern viewers but makes good sense in a film that dares to address the boundary between childhood and the sexual innocence associated with it on the one hand, and maturity and sexual awareness on the other, and how communities and institutional religion deal (or fail to deal) with the transition from childhood to maturity adequately. From failing to deal with this transition might emanate other social evils such as scapegoating others and social oppression, in particular the social oppression of vulnerable groups such as unattached women and the mentally ill. In spite of its tendency to sensationalism, this film proves to be surprisingly thoughtful and critical of unquestioned tradition and the human preference for following custom for its own sake.

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