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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Roma, 1970, cosmopolis on the Tiber, where Yankee dollars bought amphetamines and film stock—here, Franco Brocani's Necropolis (1970) was born. A polyglot Anglo-Italian co-production, with tape effects by pre-fame English experimentalist Gavin Bryars, it's a meander through Western Civilization as a gallery of cruddy dioramas. A live MC5 recording ambushes Frankenstein (played by Eurosleaze staple Bruno Corazzari); Pierre Clémenti, soon to be jailed in Rome for possession, is Attila the Hun, nude and on horseback. Brittle Warhol starlet Viva conquers the middle section, swilling Johnny Walker and philosophizing in Upstate-accented French to a drunk and amazingly depraved-looking Carmelo Bene, before she holds court in a caustic-funny monologue that sabotages all the poetic voguing.
Of the three directors featured in Anthology's show of rare Italian cinema, Brocani is the "pure" filmmaker; the aforementioned Bene was a stage actor-director-theoretician-provocateur; Mario Schifano, a pop art painter (who Brocani pays tribute to in his documentary Schifanosaurus Rex).
Brocani, Bene, and Schifano are grouped as friends and collaborators, and as the Italian Underground's truest independents, unaffiliated even with the Cooperativa del Cinema Indipendente—equivalent to New York's Filmmaker's Co-op. That doesn't necessarily make them iconoclasts. Schifano knew Warhol in New York, and sought to become an analagous figure in Rome. His reputation eludes me—maybe he threw great parties? Indeed, Schifano's Umano non umano (1972) has noteworthy friends contributing to a potluck of scenes (Schifano bringing the counterculture bromides himself): Jagger lip-synchs, poet Sandro Penna recites, and Bene (again) does an agitated bedroom duet with longtime partner Lydia Mancinelli.
It's Bene the Terrible, finally, who shows the artistic èlan and arrogant force of personality to invent his own scene, even in a vacuum, rather than play camp follower. Bene's spectacularly dissipated life ended in 2002; his five features retain a small cult—and had he continued making films past 1973, this extraordinary decadent might have all the international converts he deserves.
Leaving the stage for cinema, Bene was already infamous for theatrical vandalism, public assassinations of classic texts—he counted Pier Pasolini and Gilles Deleuze as admirers, and had antagonized most everyone else. After adapting stage works to television, he shot 1968's Our Lady of the Turks from his own "historical and semi-autobiographical" novel. (Interviewer: "Is your film going to be released in Italy?" Bene: "I hope not.") Filming on his home turf, on the heel of the Italian boot, Bene invokes the souls of buildings, of Moorish palace Sticchi and the Cathedral of Otranto, with its reliquary of martyred bones from a 15th-century Ottoman sneak attack. ("Underground" in Italy includes catacombs.) A ransacking Turk at heart, Bene plays the lead(s), a miraculously still-living witness of the slaughter who is sometimes a bandage-swaddled slapstick hero, sometimes a horny knight-errant trapped in armor, sometimes a mad monk and his own novice, always on the trail of Saint Margherita (played by Mancinelli, whose curtained red hair against the blue Aegean is but one lovely color effect in this flower-strewn procession). Lyric passages co-exist with this exhibitionistic central performance—alternately louche, zombified, pious, and goonish—that rightly evoked comparisons to Jerry Lewis.
Bene, who had "adaptated" Oscar Wilde's Salome in 1964 with a cast of Roman ex-cons, filmed it as a Super 16 Cinecetta-soundstage epic in '72. An animated camel through a needle's eye and flushed butts being swatted with feather paddles are the opening fanfare to a blasphemous carnival, the stage fruity neon tracery set against a black background. Actors jabber out across ambiguous distances, everything refracted through the rude prism of Bene's "surgical indiscipline of montage." Bene, who cited the overwhelming exertion of his lapidary productions as his reason for quitting filmmaking, described the pre-production: "Twenty-two million plastic roses arrived from Paris and Naples, painted fluorescent colors one by one. . . ."
Don't imagine that the Italian spirit of (over)-decorative art is long dead: Across town, Cinema Village is giving a first run to Roberta Torre's ratty 1997 Cosa Nostra musical, To Die for Tano. This belated appearance is undoubtedly thanks to the big box office done by Gomorrah, the most recent high-profile Italian-made mob movie—and while Roberto Saviano's tooth-grinding prose in Gomorrah's source book did attain a sort of kitsch, Tano is an intentional burlesque, a mocking funeral for the gangster-as-tragic-hero. The cast, plucked from the streets of Palermo, is done up in full call-the-Anti-Defamation-League style: hirsute men in tight Italo-disco threads; turnip-shaped gargoyle women providing commentary from the beauty parlor; everyone lip-synching and out-of-synch dancing to a score by '80s pop idol Nino D'Angelo. Torre's dumpster dive of cultural references goes all the way down to the Classical when a Medusa with a scalp of live eels appears. Manically entertaining, Tano may have been a popular hit, but its caricatured world of papier-mâché bad taste fulfills at least one Underground criteria: Save for a big showstopper in the Vucciria market, it all could've been shot in someone's basement.
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