“Il cappotto” / “The Overcoat” (1952)
In “Il Cappotto”, director Alberto Lattuada transposes Nikolai Gogol’s short story from 1800’s Russia to a contemporary Italy, and while the film is representative of an early fledgling move in Italian cinema in the use of a more sentimental, comedic wink in addressing issues heretofore touched upon by the harshly unforgiving gaze of neorealism, it also retains the original tale’s conclusion- the spectral revenge of a character haunting the townspeople and one particular authority in particular -that signifies a rare advance of a non-genre Italian film embracing the realm of the supernatural.
That Lattuada’s film signifies an unrecognized leap forward in the formation of many of the characteristics now commonly associated with the Italian cinema (his influence on the young Fellini can be seen in their collaborative directorial effort “Luci del varietà”), not the least significant of which is a rich vein of sentimental humanism unashamedly running through a story that in Gogol’s version is ultimately sympathetic to his protagonist after a rather cruelly drawn exposition. The original story’s bluntly critical, if darkly satiric, consideration of the oppressive and dislocating effect on the individual by both institutional social structures and their companion authority has been converted into a more comic poke at corrupt and vacuous bureaucrats whose authority seems only to exist to serve enhance their own benefits and their pay for their private pleasures. This film adaptation, by Lattuada and his small army of co-scenarists (Giorgio Prosperi, Giordano Corsi, Enzo Correlli, Luigi Materba, Leonardo Sinisgalli and Cesare Zavattini), is characterized by a mollifying of tone and a major shift in narrative focus; prioritizing the bureaucratic antagonists rather than the individual protagonist.
Carmine De Carmine (Renato Rascal), a City Hall clerk whose anonymity is symbolized by his threadbare overcoat, finds that his honest, literal response to tasks recording the self-serving plans of the Mayor (Giulio Stival) and his bureaucratic sheep are inconsistent with the more practical need to masquerade their wasteful and corrupt practices. A caring innocent amid an institution in which indifference and duplicitous mercenary gain are the operating rules (the doublespeak employed by the Mayor are skillfully composed satiric orations which blur the distinction between practical, delusional altruism and fascism), Carmine, naively overhears an impromptu meeting of officials concerning briberies, the knowledge of which convinces his immediate superior, the Secretary General, to offer him an unnecessary bonus a barely disguised bit of additional bribery for silence, which Carmine, oblivious to the true motive of the stipend, accepts to contribute to the cost of an expensive new overcoat he is having tailored; a material purchase which has a transformative effect upon the man: elevating his physical appearance with subsequent effects on his standing within the office staff, in the community and emboldening Carmine to make tentative gestures toward the woman of his dreams, who also happens to be the Mayor’s mistress, Caterina (Yvonne Sanson). Invited to a New Year’s Eve party at the Secretary General’s home, Carmine becomes intoxicated (in literally drinking the fruits of privilege) and, thus with all sensible caution abandoned, dances a waltz with Caterina, to the consternation of the Mayor. Returning home through the dark streets, he is accosted by a hooligan who robs him of his coat,
Consistent with the source story, the film experiences a sharp focal shift from humor to tragedy, though unlike in Gogol’s conception, the tragic circumstance is mollified through dilution when so much of the film’s attention has been in demonstrating the social callousness of the bureaucratic string pullers; a criticism deeply embedded in both versions, but more starkly unrelenting toward Akaky (Carmine’s name in the story) in the literary rendering, but in the process of yielding a divided screen time between the Mayor’s cadre and Carmine, the pathetic single-minded obsessiveness by which the clerk sacrifices for his coat is severely minimized. Lattuada’s adaptive additions and shifts in narrative emphasis conspire to weaken Gogol’s third act by failing to instill an appropriately desperate portrait of Carmine as a virtual prisoner of his singular goal of possessing the eponymous garment. Clearly, despite the substantial changes in the filmic adaptation, there is a retention one of the more pronounced thematic aspects of the original text: the value of material gain in awakening both a sense of self-worth, and a corresponding rise in stature in society (The bursting of this ascension through the theft of the coat is contributory in making Carmine’s plight more pitiable.), but what is missing in the film is the material ascension also encompassing the awakening of a sexual drive in Carmine, a conceit by which Gogol further expressed the pathetic dislocation suffered by Akaky; when he is introduced, Carmine is already seething with yearnings for the ripely sexual Caterina.
Carmine’s final, posthumous meeting with the Mayor, in which a sudden reversal of character undoes the entire film’s portrait of bureaucrats as an unholy alliance of frauds, cheats and scoundrels; making the hardest of the elite unaccountably pliable to the suggestion of the presence of a modest character. That this reversal is also clumsily executed, makes this version of the phantasmagorical ending of Gogol’s tale feel like a morally counterfeit version of “A Christmas Carol”, undercutting the suffering of the impoverished petitioners to whom Carmine unsuccessfully attempts to champion against City Hall’s crushing indifference while bestowing an unearned psychic beneficence toward the film’s greatest offender. The awkward magnanimity of the scene also denies Carmine’s need for closure, altering Gogol’s finale into a continuing and unexplained desire for the spectral clerk to continue a campaign of terror against entirely innocent citizens. Thus, the pessimism toward bureaucratic authority, so contemptuously exhibited by Lattuada is abandoned for a pat ending, shoveling onto the film a redemptive moral lesson by whatever unconvincing contortions of psychology necessary. Just what was Lattuada attempting to convey here?
The performances are uniformly fine, with outstanding contributions by Giulio Cali as the coat’s tailor (his hilarious and poignant pride in his creation is a masterstroke) and Renato Rascel whose Chaplinesque quality of modest dignity in the face of social indignity makes even a watered down version of Gogol’s protagonist a bittersweet gem.
“La decima vittima” / “The 10th Victim” (1965)
“It’s trendy to kill women.”
Based upon the gritty Robert Sheckley story The Seventh Victim, Elio Petri’s “La decima vittima” (or, “The 10th Victim”) extends the narrative’s themes of a competitive game of legalized homicide beyond its presumptive dystopian roots and with its refreshingly effervescent lightening of tone, manages to become a sharp observational satire on 1960’s popular culture, and more pointedly, the war of the sexes.
The homicidal kill as sport has been an cultural staple since the publication of Richard Connell’s seminal short story “The Most Dangerous Game” in 1924, and has been used in dozens of films, though an escalated variant of the theme saw a greater emergence with the increased production of large scale SF films which seem to have a grim, dystopian bent (Hollywood’s outlook on the future of the world seems to have no room for the notion of nations comprised of surviving democratic principles) which are based on an alarming misunderstanding of Western political theory with filmmakers presuming the unexplained collapse of a democratic structure is automatically usurped by a popular slavishness to an untenable dystopian ideal, and that the best method of tranquilizing the masses would be to encourage it into a widespread campaign of embracing the anarchic attraction of an organized game of violence; a completely illogical model of social engineering which relies heavily on the dubious premise that the way to mollify the behavior of a population is through violent media stimulation (in fact, just the opposite is true), a psychologically nonsensical aberration which may explain Edward R. Murrow’s observation- a sly paraphrasing of Karl Marx’ quotation from his Deutsch Französische Jahrbücher -that television may be the “opiate of the people”, since a steady, deliberately forced diet of violent imagery would be more likely to stimulate rather than sedate instincts conducive to hostility; as exampled by the feral devotion toward the combatants as portrayed in Norman Jewison’s 1975 “Rollerball”, Paul Bartel’s 1975 “Death Race 2000” and Paul Michael Glaser’s 1986 “The Running Man” to more contemporary examples such as “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games”.
In “La decima vittima”, the actual motivation for the sanctioning of such a publicized hunt contains far different motivations in Shockley’s original story and though the film’s interests do not extend to a sanctioning of legitimized murder as a tool of subversive societal modulation, there are passing suggestions that the game is a miracle cure for hostilities both personal and multinational- an irrationally complex version of a soothing glass of warm milk -though every action in the film contradicts these assertions and it’s the cavalier tone accompanying such blatant incongruities that contributes a great deal to the film’s charm; it has to be the most breezy dystopian fantasy ever filmed. The film’s absence of an extensive explanatory burden relieves Petri from the task of weighing down the action with the extraneous baggage of a backlog of convoluted invented history outlining an presumably alternate future social evolution (which usually only serves to confuse the audience while contributing little to the way of information relevant to the story about to unfold) in order to fully represent both credible social and political states of mind which would divert the satiric focus of the film’s storyline (being that the film is unhappily regarded as science fiction- speculative satire would be a more accurate categorization -there is already the presumption of a leap of good faith- a.k.a., a certain suspension of disbelief -expected of the audience). Rather, under the capable stewardship of director Elio Petri– himself no stranger to mocking the conventions of bureaucracies and authority which goes to extreme lengths to make itself look foolish to begin with -the film assumes an almost Orwellian melding of contemporaneous sociopolitical institutions and cautionary speculative evolution of conditions and behavior arising if those same institutions were run unchecked.
That being said, what saves the film from emerging as just another in a series of futuristic funk sessions is twofold: Petri’s biting satiric eye and its compliment by way of a scathingly witty script by Tonino Guerra, Ennio Flaiano, Giorgio Salvioni, Elio Petri and Ernesto Gastaldi which effortlessly creates a self-contained alternate reality richly mined for comedy with a minimum of the tiresome cartoon exaggeration which tends to undermine most cinematic social satire with an unnecessary level of tastelessness mired in buffoonery. The world depicted in “La decima vittima” is entirely ridiculous, yet so recognizable as closely approximating real-life as to give the sensation of watching a serious film under the influence of nitrous oxide. In fact, except for the the initial concept of cold-blooded killing as competitive sport, the film is surprisingly good-natured and a great deal of fun; perhaps the only filmed derivation of the original Connell conception in which the conflicting dynamic goal becomes less about the hunt for the kill than the hunt for the heart; a transmutation of purpose which has the potential to become cloying if the level of reconception is arrived at by means in which the story becomes overly sentimental, a circumstance handily avoided by making the principle characters convinced of their own invincibly pragmatic cunning; a certainty that preserves an uncertainty in the audience: just what will be the outcome of the extended, teasing and sexually charged pas de deux?
In the near future, aggressions are mollified by “The Big Hunt”, an international human safari of the hunter and the hunted, in which combatants are paired off by computer, with the hunter supplied with a full folio of information on their prey and the hunted merely left to their own devices. Each round finds an alternation of role from hunter to hunted and back again until a contestant survives all ten rounds and wins a million dollars plus an assortment of door prizes. With this set-up, enter the contestants: Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress), an American who is the hunter on her tenth contest, and Marcello Poletti (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian who is now the hunted on his seventh. Immediately, in a pair of witty introductory sequences, with Caroline pursued through the streets and alleys of New York until gunning down her hunter with a high caliber brassiere and Marcello rather sheepishly dispatching his quarry with a pair of explosive equestrian boots (the pair’s use of extravagantly elaborate devices in their killings filters their actions with a joke shop quality- at one point Marcello plans to dispatch Caroline with the use of an ejector seat and a crocodile -that removes any potentially souring hard-edge to their actions), the amusing dichotomy of the protagonists’ characters are exhibited as Caroline is portrayed as an ebullient, energetic contestant whereas the character Marcello’s behavior is consistent with actor Marcello’s screen persona: the amiable but passively weary Roman who invests as little conspicuous effort as possible in dealing with even a possibly fatal situation. The film playfully reverses the traditional tendency toward a more masculine aggressive gender role and by portraying Marcello as submerged in a world of emasculating female empowerment, he is pulled /into him into a different direction based upon the differing demands of the individual characters (wife, mistress, hunter) despite their often working in harmonious collusion, Petri creates a universe in which the Battle of the Sexes is no battle at all, but a one-sided assault of the empowered woman against the emotionally exhausted male. In the film’s witty yet subtle acknowledgement to the rising feminist tide
of the time, sex is not the battleground but the power inherent in the control of that sexuality. In the world of “La decima vittima”, women are depicted as being completely in charge, having figured out the brainless needs of the male and one of the more original comic aspects of the film is its cavalier challenge to the feminist sensibility by posing the simple hypothetical inquiry: “ O.K., men have handed you the keys to their kingdom, now what are you going to do about it?” (The fact that the circumstances and subsequent responses are entirely assembled from the minds of men may seem to give the film’s males an unfair chauvinistic advantage, but this is not the case: men are just as severely ribbed- actually more so -as the women. To paraphrase a bit of vintage advice: simply ignore the boys behind the curtain.)
Petri sets the tone of the film in the opening sequence where Caroline is seen avoiding assassination in a manner that is almost playful. There doesn’t seem to be any immediacy to her eluding her hunter and by all rights, her pursuer is portrayed as far clumsier and rather thick-headed, whereas Caroline is almost cat-like in her sensuously dexterous manner; all accented by the cottony fluff of Piero Piccioni’s jazzy scoring which will italicize the antics of the entire film with its teasing female pseudo-scat riffs. This initial pursuit, in which the woman slowly leads her pursuer into her own trap, signals what will be a consistent motif running through the film: the female as predator, whether as hunter in an assassin’s game, or as an ensnarer of male freedom through matrimony or an emotional gamesmanship that, in Petri’s eyes, men are ill-equipped to prevail. There is also an amusing, subversive undercurrent of sexual politics defined as a commodity; a reverse objectification of the male as a possession Marcello’s mistress and ex-wife are far more preoccupied with money matters than with personal attachment- Marcello is a source of luxury and materialism rather than a necessary attachment for sexual intimacy (the personal pride in controlling him clearly brings the women greater satisfaction than a symbiotic personal relationship alone -and he is certainly regarded by both as more of a source of material accumulation than a source of emotional security: his ex-wife Lidia (Luce Bonifassy) being far more protective of her comradeship with Olga (Elsa Martinelli), Marcello’s mistress, who in turn seems far more physically stimulated by her random encounters with male strangers than by Marcello.) Throughout the film, the women in Marcello’s life view him as a figure of contractual (both matrimonial and promissory) convenience. In fact, the outwardly callous view that everything in life (including, but not limited to, faith, parents and death itself) can be regarded as an financial commodity is at the very core of both the film’s satire and its eventual success as a romance when a genuine exchange of emotion transcends the mercenary leanings within the film; the expectedly dire dystopian view of society transformed by a basis in commedia dell’arte rather than usual scabrous societal finger wagging.
Caroline’s ninth kill, also emphasizes a weapon yielded by women that in the film’s satiric context men are powerless against: sex. The fatal moments of her contest take place in the significantly named Masoch Club in which she emerges masked, clothed in a tin foil bikini, and entertaining the male patrons with (appropriate) physical abuse; the director emphasizing Caroline’s own knowledge of and willingness to use her flaunted “assets” to gain advantage over the male of the species and the first of many references which will contradict the State’s confident claim that the game has mollified both individual and national needs for violent behavior. (This is also borne out by the excited club emcee of this first kill thanks the Big Hunt for allowing the kill’s immediate proximity “for our amusement.”) Caroline is an interesting creation: aggressive, opportunistic, but lacking the core of mean-spiritedness which precludes her from stature as a genuine anti-heroine, her character is actually a modern variation of the screwball comedy heroine (The film makes a great deal of sense if Caroline and Marcello are seen as substitutes for Susan Vance and David Huxley from “Bringing Up Baby”) with proclivities toward violence and overt sexuality amplifying that genre’s signatory anarchic behavior. This is complimented by the sensorial befuddlement of an untypically vulnerable portrait of masculine bravura within her male competitors; the men depicted as slipping into a observational fog at the slightest hint of cleavage or smooth feminine flesh. Caroline’s tin foil masquerade is comically transparent, especially at close range, though her quarry is hypnotically oblivious, transfixed by the figure of gyrating sexuality before him, he lays down his pistol (The phallus subservient before the overpowering carnality in the design of womanhood?) moments before being liquidated by twins shots from Caroline’s deadly brassiere; a nasty response to the male fixation with breasts. Similarly, in Marcello’s investigation to determine whether or not Caroline (who, interestingly, doesn’t bother to masquerade her identity) is his pursuing hunter, there is never the slightest effort made to crosscheck information readily available as to her true identity (and therefore, intent); her previous kill having been widely publicized, freely disseminating her name and image to the public record. For their part, Women allow themselves to be presented as blatant objects of sexuality in the film without even the slightest hint of irony as these same women are portrayed as being in complete control of that sexuality and constantly employ it for personal advantage, whereas the male of the species, most prominently the Neopolitian stereotype personified by Marcello are emotionally paralyzed by their inability to maturely match wits- both intellectually and sexually -with their feminine counterparts. This imbalance of empowerment is also apparent in the increasingly desperate and labyrinthine internecine plots designed by the increasingly frustrated men to exact their competitive kills (Caroline’s corporate sponsors insistence on her tenth victory being turned into a tasteless and elaborate occasion for product placement and Marcello with his Rube Goldbergesque poolside assassination scenario), plots that are derivative of the absurdly over-the-top machinations of the comic book arch-nemesis, the men regressing to almost boyish behavior in answer to the unyielding intimidation of the female’s sexual power. (The film- beyond its approximate visual scheme to three-color pop art in the cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo -is littered with literal and allegorical references to comic books.) It is the fuel of the film’s comedic counterpoint, an absurdist sense of self-contradiction in the feminine pronouncement of entitlement to possession of their chosen male simultaneous with assurances that they are gender independent (if not outright superior) to those same men in their lives; the successful inversion of archetypal chauvinism becomes positively exhilarating.
One of the more amusing conceits of the film is that even though it is in essence a cat and mouse pursuit, there is little actual pursuit; this is by no means intended as a thriller. In fact, Caroline has initial problems connecting with the suspicious but lethargic Marcello and despite the nature of their feigned relationship, finds herself charmed by him. However, that this appearance of attraction may be a masquerade on her part is not lost on Marcello, whose suspicions are aroused almost immediately though he continually hesitates to take counteraction, mainly todue the fact that mistakenly killing a “civilian” leads to harsh criminal penalties, and secondly because, despite his natural compunction against new intimacies (his exhaustion with people, while not misanthropic- he’s too good-natured for that -is absolute, with the last resources of his affections saved for his tiny mechanical pet), he finds himself increasingly attracted to her. Oddly, it is not emotions which are not exploited as weapons of the sexual chase but rather material reprisals with which both Olga and Lidia threaten and berate the weary Marcello; acts which ironically only serve to increase the rage in both women (their culminating unleashing of their most primal violent instincts is the final comic stab at the notion of a aggression controlled populace) as their most earnest efforts barely get a rise out of him. If Marcello is the mouse in this sexual dance then his feet are almost immediately stuck in a glue trap composed of his own hilariously emasculated masculine nature.
“La doppia ora” / “The Double Hour” (2009)
A guest at a hotel leaps from the balcony to her death. A woman attends a speed dating ritual. A pair of budding lovers is accosted during an art heist. A woman begins seeing the phantom images of a dead lover. Is it a mystery? A romantic drama? A crime thriller? A supernatural horror? Actually, a bit of all four. One of the most intriguing elements of “La doppia ora” (“The Double Hour”) is its willingness to explore the power of perception, not only in how only how one views the world objectively, but how even a casual reference may stimulate a dramatic shift in one’s perception, imparting the most innocent occurrences with a sudden dramatic urgency.
Sonia, a maid in a hotel, is cleaning a bathroom when the occupant plunges out the window to her death. Later, Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport) is seen exchanging forced friendly banalities at a speed dating session until she is paired with Guido (Filippo Timi), a favored client of the session’s director Marisa (Lucia Poli), to whom Sonia feels attracted to due to his weary, realistic views of this artificial dating process and by his small but telling insights. They develop a friendship, during which Sonia discovers Guido is an ex-policeman now working as a private security guard. To reveal more would severely diminish the skillfully constructed script by Alessandro Fabbri, Ludoviza Rampoldi and Stefano Sardo which sinuously interweaves several threads of exposition that will later intersect in ways which will question their reality, not only in terms of the individual character’s viewpoint tainted by neurotic fears fueling guilt and irrational behavior, but also in how we as the viewers sift through the clues of a supposedly objectively presented viewpoint.
If Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” and Coppola’s “The Conversation” seem likely antecedents to director Giuseppe Capotondi’s film, the obfuscation of truth is not delineated in any substantial way through technological extension of the senses, as was the case both visually and aurally in the aforementioned works, but rather but is a product of a forced perspective gamesmanship that is more aligned with the psychological methodology of Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, even more so with a film containing structural befuddlement of a calculated design such as Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” with its deliberately erroneous narrative flashback. Further comparisons might be drawn from David Mamet’s “House of Games” and “The Spanish Prisoner”, though in each of those, the calculations of structure seemed more of a priority than introspective character studies. In the case of “La doppia ora”, the manipulation of truth, rather than a means to a narrative end, serves as an enhancement to later revelations of character that emerge about both Guido and Sonia as well as significant self-realizations that result in unexpected actions. This is a film driven by psychology not technology.
The film is in essence a prism of cumulative detail that reveals the mind’s conscious and subconscious experience with equal deliberation. This is not a film for the casual viewer as seemingly random detail- sights, noises, off-hand occurrences -figure mightily in the culminating piecing of the film’s mystery, and it is incumbent of the viewer to actually pay close attention to realize the film’s ultimate rewards. This may sound like a rather obvious expectation of the audience, however, in a climate of gratuitous sensation aimed at the viewer- leaving little to the imagination save for instinctive visceral knee jerk reactions to sensory assaults, it is not difficult to detect a considerable diminishment of the need for developing an ability to detect subtlety; see a Batman film in IMAX to experience the oddly disorienting sensation, not of appreciating capably engineered action sequences, but rather of the heightened volume making your ears bleed.
Ultimately, “La doppia ora” is a film about unknowable truth, the ambiguousness with which life is constructed in countless fragmented moments, each rife with malleable variables shifting their definition by the most minute intercession of word, gesture or circumstance. Everyday experience is recorded in a seemingly banal manner, scenes unfolding without an apparent connection to a more central narrative intent, but simply living snapshots of moments capturing the mundane repetitions of habit and behavior, yet each ultimately contributing to a suppressed mental cataloging of sensorial memory that will erupt in recombined patterns, altering perceptions and ultimately causing conscious reality to be as tenuously unreliable as unconscious dream state imaginings. The driving principles of this perceptual imbalance are guilt and disappointment. Guido’s former police colleague Dante (Michele Di Mauro) alludes to instances of criminal betrayal in Sonia’s past, a source of both Sonia’s and later Guido’s latent feelings of guilt; Sonia’s manifested by a past incident with her father and also her behavior toward Guido, both also subjects to which she is the direct cause of betrayals and subsequent disappointments. Guido, on the other hand, is harboring dark demons clearly related to issues with his deceased wife (an episode of rough dismissive sex speaks volumes toward his inability to cope with women intimately that will later color his judgments and deepen the wounds of betrayal) and later acts out of a wellspring of romantic loyalty that masquerades a shattering disappointment. Both principle characters psyches are riddled with damaged layers that bring a fragile definition to their characters; lulling each into a melancholy existence devoid of intimate attachment. Ultimately, they are characters imprisoned by their own baser natures.
Then there is the reoccurrence of the double hour, a visual motif which exists solely from a passing remark by Guido in an early encounter with Sonia; signifying a “double hour” in which a person’s wish may be granted fulfillment. It is later repeated as a significantly increasingly ominous portent of things to come, or of a general state of irony, or perhaps nothing at all. Regardless, each instance of a reoccurrence is treated by both characters and film as a significant moment; a catalytic non-event that triggers neurotic memory patterns within both Sonia and Guido, often leading to panicked confusion and subsequent ill-considered actions. Despite the minimalist tone and mannered, slowly observant rhythms in which the film was shot, it does have its roots in the film thriller, (though significantly, incidents of overt violence or death occur offscreen) and the conventions of the genre have a tendency to disrupt the natural progression of character development so harmoniously melded within the fractured story structure. Ultimately, unimaginative genre considerations fail to sustain the film’s delicate tone to the finale as the level of constant narrative reinvention becomes blunted by the more banal nature of a crime film denouement.
Both Kseniya Rappoport as Sonia and Filippo Timi as Guido inhabit their roles so fully, telegraphing every hesitant impulse, every painful moment of silent desperation for emotional contact, that their performances transcend what is normally delivered and accepted as acting, and elevate into an exclusive Pantheon of artistry. Significant and notable performances are also provided by Michele Di Mauro and especially Antonia Truppo as Sonia’s friend and co-worker Margherita, an effervescent bit of fizz amid a dark and simmering brew.
Sophia Loren in the 1964 film “Matrimonio all’italiana” (“Marriage Italian Style”)