Alberto Cavallone (1938-1997) has been one of Italian cinema’s best kept secrets. During his career as a film director he was ignored, misunderstood, often ridiculed; for most of the ‘90s, when Italian critics began to rediscover national “submersed” cinema, he was left behind, partly due to his body of work’s almost complete unavailability. An eccentric, anarchic, cultured yet extremely unorthodox, even idiosyncratic filmmaker, Cavallone has always been – as he himself used to say – an extreme figure. This was as much a vocation as a precise choice: “To be extreme, to me, means to be a-normal, that is outside the norm. Norm is deadness, staticness, a passive acceptation of the existing world. Norm is immoral because it wants to be moral. Norm denies universal ethics. Being normal means not evolving, but just accepting what protects the mechanisms of life. Anormality means desire of progress, it’s a quest and a challenge. It’s the discovery of new ethics and morals, adequate to the… read more
Alberto Cavallone (1938-1997) has been one of Italian cinema’s best kept secrets. During his career as a film director he was ignored, misunderstood, often ridiculed; for most of the ‘90s, when Italian critics began to rediscover national “submersed” cinema, he was left behind, partly due to his body of work’s almost complete unavailability. An eccentric, anarchic, cultured yet extremely unorthodox, even idiosyncratic filmmaker, Cavallone has always been – as he himself used to say – an extreme figure. This was as much a vocation as a precise choice: “To be extreme, to me, means to be a-normal, that is outside the norm. Norm is deadness, staticness, a passive acceptation of the existing world. Norm is immoral because it wants to be moral. Norm denies universal ethics. Being normal means not evolving, but just accepting what protects the mechanisms of life. Anormality means desire of progress, it’s a quest and a challenge. It’s the discovery of new ethics and morals, adequate to the changes that are denied by rules.”
Born in Milan on August 28th, 1938, Cavallone was raised in a bourgeois family. His beginnings in show business were on stage, as assistant director at the milanese theatre “Il Piccolo”, then in advertising, where he tried his hand at directing and editing tv ads. In 1959 he completed his first work as a filmmaker: La sporca guerra (l.t.: The Bloody War), a political documentary on the Algerian war of independence, shot in 16mm, with a voice-over commentary by the renowned Giovanni Arpino and a score by Pino Donaggio. “I was 17 when I shot it. I asked my grandmother to tell my parents that I was on holiday with friends, while I was shooting. I arrived in Tunisia with my 16mm Paillard camera, and then entered Algeria2.” Since the beginning, Cavallone was a non-aligned spirit: La sporca guerra was openly critical towards the French Communist party because of its responsibility in the election of Charles De Gaulle, and was not well received in the Italian communist environment3. All that is left today of the fifty minute film is a script with Arpino’s commentary on the magazine “Cinema Nuovo”. A similar fate awaited Cavallone’s feature debut, the semi-documentary Lontano dagli occhi (l.t.: Far from the Eyes). Produced by Sergio Canevari and Enrico Colombo’s Nuovo Mondo Cinematografica, it’s the story of a left-wing reporter (Paride Calonghi) who travels to Frankfurt in order to write a piece on a trial against former Nazi officers for their acts against hummanity such as concentration camps and the use of Zyclone B in gas chambers. Cavallone wrote a first draft of the script in 1962 with Sergio Lentati (who played a role in the film as well) and Massimo Magri, but it’s unlikely that Lontano dagli occhi got made before 1964: Lentati recalls that the script made references to the JFK assassination. Shot on a shoestring budget and with a cast of non-professionals, Lontano dagli occhi was edited, scored and dubbed, and Cavallone planned to add a few more scenes that were probably never shot: however, the film did not find any distribution and sadly remains unseen to this day. Lentati states that the style recalled both nouvelle vague and Antonioni, with a scene – shot in a white room, with white sheets, and a pale girl all dressed in white – referring explicitly to La notte (1960).
In the meantime, Cavallone met actress Maria Pia Luzi, who would become his wife and would be featured in all of his films until Spell (1977) with the pseudonym Jane Avril. The couple had a son, Giulio, whom the director sometimes used in small roles (he is the little child playing with a grenade in Quickly, for instance). The only way for the young director to keep making movies was to move to Rome, where he worked as an assistant to renowned scriptwriter Ennio De Concini: some of his efforts were uncredited, while other scripts included Duccio Tessari’s musical fantasy Per amore… per magia (For Love… for Magic, 1967), Nino Zanchin’s La lunga sfida (1967) and Mikhail K. Kalatozov’s The Red Tent (1969). That same year, Cavallone finally managed to get behind the camera again. Shot on 16mm in Tunisia, a country the director felt very close to since the days of La sporca guerra, the film was originally titled C’era una bionda (There was a Blonde) but eventually became Le salamandre (The Salamanders). Cavallone had started working on the script with Sergio Lentati in 1967: the first draft had a more explicitly political tone, whereas the finished film was sold as a morbid erotic flick centered on a ménage-à-trois between a Swedish-American fashion photographer, Ursula (Erna Schurer), her lover, a black model named Uta (Beryl Cunningham), and psychologist Henri Duval (Antony Vernon, real name Antonio Casale).
Le salamandre came out in the same period as Tinto Brass’ Nerosubianco, which also focused on an interracial relationship, and did surprisingly well at the box office, taking in about 500 million liras (better than Franco’s Justine and Lenzi’s So Sweet, So Perverse, to name two popular genre movies released the same year). Nobody seemed to notice that Le salamandre was a rather more complex affair: an allegory on colonialism which liberally drew on Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”, with its thesis that any resistance to the colonizer’s strength must also be of a violent nature because it is the only “language” the colonizer speaks. The film opens with an impressive oneiric scene: a black man is chased on a beach by a car, three white men get out and beat him savagely, then cut off his penis (offscreen) while the horrified Uta watches from behind a bush, the whole scene accompanied by a reverberating electronic noise. The men then start chasing Uta, whose terrified expresson turns into a smile as she sees Ursula on a dune, waiting for her with her arms maternally open. Later on, there is room for one of the director’s trademarks – the use of shocking stock footage as a complement to the narration – as Duval shows the two girls a wall that was used for capital executions (“In front of this wall we are all murderers”), Cavallone cuts to footage of war prisoners being shot point blank by a firing squad4. Another element – the vampiric, master/servant relationship between the photographer and her model – would return, this time in an even more extreme form, in Blue Movie (1977); last but not least, in another scene Ursula discovers a dead model in her apartment, who set up a camera to take shots as she killed herself by taking sleeping pills. Ursula impassively develops the negatives, composing a series of pics that portray the various phases of the woman’s suicide ritual: the obsession of an impassive eye recording death will be one of the director’s favourite themes, culminating in Maldoror (1975).
“There was a sort of accusation towards the audience: ‘You came to see this film just to see two naked women… you have a colonialist mentality. Nothing’s changed, the only way to change things is to kill you’”. That’s how Cavallone explained the film’s ending where, in a metafilmic twist, after Uta has stabbed Henri and Ursula to death, the fiction of the set is revealed: a technician pours fake blood over Erna Schurer’s body, a clapperboard (featuring the title C’era una bionda) appears, and we hear the director telling his crew to get ready to shoot the alternative ending for the US market, “where the white girl kills the black one”… It’s a perfect trait d’union between Bava’s I tre volti della paura (a.k.a. Black Sabbath, 1963) and Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973). Stylistically, Cavallone aimed for a bleak, cinéma-vérité look, with blinding white exteriors and occasional splashes of bright red: “When Alberto saw the rushes, he told me ‘This is not an Esher Williams film. There is way too much colour in it! I want the movie to look like stock footage’” recalled dop Maurizio Centini5. Unfortunately dialogue – most of it obviously rewritten during postproduction and credited to Guido Leoni – is often annoying and overwhelming, as it goes on and on over scenes at times clearly intended to be dialogue-less.
With Le salamandre, Cavallone became a “hot” director, something that wouldn’t happen again in his career. A producer asked him to make another movie in the vein of Le salamandre, starring Florinda Bolkan, but he refused. His following works dilapidated his new-found commercial credit. The unpleasant Dal nostro inviato a Copenaghen (From Our Copenhagen’s Correspondent, 1970) dealt with an uneasy subject matter – Vietnam War – and was even less compromising than its predecessor: the working title, which distributors requested to be changed, was the openly anti-American Così U.S.A. (a wordplay on the phrase “così usa”, which in Italian means “that’s the way it goes”). Soldiers Nick Valenti (George Stevenson) and William Cole (Alain N. Kalsjy, born Walter Fabrizio) desert from the Us base in Wiesbaden, West Germany and hide in Copenhagen, with the help of a member of a pacifist organization. Soon they end up penniless, and Nick gets a job as porn actor, whereas William, who is haunted by images of the war, loses his mind and almost kills a woman. Nick asks a psychiatrist, professor Borg (Antony Vernon), to cure his friend, but the doctor sees his patient as a guinea pig, and plans to exploit his war traumas in order to get fame and success. Meanwhile, William keeps reviving the atrocities he has witnessed and committed (with graphic torture scenes depicting nails being removed, villages destroyed etc), and cannot distinguish anymore between memories and reality…
Dal nostro inviato a Copenaghen was equally critical towards left-wing ideology as well, as shown by the character of Borg. Cavallone also had a thing or two to say about the rising sex industry as a new opium for the masses. “With sex, people do not think, and believe they are free. We live in a society that’s starving for tits!” says a porn tycoon as he prepares for a shoot. Cavallone’s take on pornography is sardonic: a kinky lesbian scene, with the two girls titillating each other by having a guinea pig walk over their bodies, is accompanied by the actresses’ small talk which underlines their disinterest (“I’m going to buy one of these lovely mice for my kids” says one). It’s a symptom of the problematic, antagonist approach the director would maintain when shooting hardcore films himself in the future. But the film’s sociopolitical ambitions are eventually undermined by a style that is still unripe, filled with unnecessary, at times goofy zooms (Cavallone himself admitted: “It looks as if the director had just discovered the use of the zoom lens”) and stock footage, while the meagre budget show in the sequences crudely recreating ‘Nam in rural Italy landscapes. The juxtaposition of ordinary Western life and the horrors of war is also overdone: a sex scene has the lovers’ whispering “I love you” over battle footage, children playing in the park intercut with laughing Vietnamese children and so on. Dal nostro inviato a Copenaghenbenefits from a nervous performance by Kalsjy (whose pseudonym no doubt pays homage to his physical resemblance with Klaus Kinski), and shows Cavallone’s eye for capturing everyday life, such as when William stops and harasses passers-by, asking them “Who am I?”, a scene shot candid camera-style. At times Dal nostro inviato a Copenaghen looks like a non-fiction film as it follows its two main characters as they wander aimlessly through the streets of Copenhagen, while most of the dialogue sounds as it was added – often haphazardly – in post-production as an excuse to tie different scenes together, similar to in Le salamandre. Box office results were very poor: a mere 90 millions liras.
Follow Me – Deconstructing Genres
A radical change of pace was Quickly – “Spari e baci a colazione” (Quickly – Shootings and Kisses for Breakfast, 1971), a demented, postmodern deconstruction of the heist film with offscreen voices à-la What’s up, Tiger Lily and bizarre cartoon inserts (helmed by Cavallone himself, who also did the editing under the curious a.k.a. Mister X). Quickly, originally titled Follow Me (Cavallone: “I never had the chance to keep the titles I had chosen”) allowed the director to use footage from another incomplete project, the musical comedy Il ragazzo che fece fumare il Vesuvio (The Boy Who Made the Vesuvio Erupt). Cavallone was never fond of the script (helmed with Guido Leoni and Mario Imperoli), and purposedly overplayed the production’s minimal budget. “It was such a rickety film, because it couldn’t be born in any other way. Instead of hiding it, I decided to overdo its rickety appearence”. The director’s peculiar sense of humour is evident from the opening sequence, where a holdup takes place in a deserted village – a leftover set from some spaghetti western – with the gang getting away on motorbikes. The plot evolves around various characters searching for a safety box where stolen diamonds are hidden (the idea of the stones smuggled inside Marlboro packets somehow predates one of Blue Movie’s most impressive images), and moves at speedy pace from one absurdist set piece to the other, such as a shootout between the bandits and South american revolutionaries moderated by a traffic cop. With a composite cast – bombshells Magda Konopka and Claudine Lange, singer-turned-actor Sergio Leonardi and Cavallone regulars Jane Avril, Beryl Cunningham and Antony Vernon – and a stunning jazzy score by Franco Potenza, Quickly was nonetheless a mixed bag: too weird for mainstream audience, yet decidedly too bizarre for critics of the period to take the director’s experiments seriously.
Decolonized Africa as a modern-day Little Big Horn, white men as general Custer’s soldiers: that’s how Cavallone described the concept that spawned Afrika (1973). It’s an uncomfortable, uncommercial premise that shows how little Cavallone cared of commercial issues. The theme is once again that of cultural/political clash, in a country – Ethiopia – that’s experiencing a sort of “new birth” after the end of colonialism. Cavallone echoed the confusion and identity crisis of a whole country with those of a group of Europeans who chose to hide themselves in the Third World rather than solve their existential problems. The main character, Philip Stone (the underrated Ivano Staccioli) is a failed painter who is unable to fully accept his homosexuality, and carries on a miserable life of reciprocal betrayals and bitter recriminations with his estranged wife (“You can’t stand the idea that someone loves you. It’s too hard for you!”). His young secretary/lover Frank (Andrea Traglia) eventually decides to undergo a sex change operation and become a woman in order to make their relationship an “acceptable” one. But Frank’s rebirth as a woman named Eva becomes a tragic awakening, culminating in suicide. Shot on Super 16mm and then blown up to 35mm, Afrika is built around a fragmented, intriguing flashback structure: the bulk of the film takes place immediately after Frank’s death, as a local commissioner (Debebe Eshetu, who would be also in Cavallone’s subsequent film, Zelda) questions both Philip and Frank’s sister Jeanne (Jane Avril) and the main characters’ stories gradually come to the surface. Each event is presented under two or three different points of view, each one giving more information than the previous. In one scene, Frank is kidnapped by a quartet of schoolmates (two boys and two girls) and savagely raped in the countryside. We then get to know that the rape was organized by Jeanne’s husband (Martial Boschero6) in order to make Frank “recover” from homosexuality. This all sounds much more interesting on paper, though: didascalic dialogue and bad performances (especially Traglia’s) make Afrika a daring yet badly flawed film. It almost looks as if Cavallone gradually got tired of the basic premise – he stated that the story came from an unknown paperback published by Edizioni 533 (yet there is no mention of it in the credits) and let his inspiration work. Actually, the best parts are those when the director’s documentaristic eye meets his sharp, nihilistic humour. A long scene features a group of healthy tourists – including Philip and his wife, a blind ex-colonel and his African spouse, and a good-looking young actor – making a trip to the countryside, to a village where they buy handicraft objects and have the villagers kill an ox (onscreen) and set up a banquet in their honour. A woman makes fun of the natives (“Gee, I’m gonna buy you a dustcleaner for Christmas! So that’s why they call it ‘black Africa’, because of all this dirt!”), the colonel’s wife openly flirts with the actor in front of the unsuspecting husband, while Philip and his wife play the happy couple while they’re actually preparing to divorce. They don’t understand Africa, and make a mockery of its tradition and its people. But somehow they envy its innocence, something they lost forever, and desperately try to imitate it. That’s where Cavallone excels, capturing the characters’ desperation and incommunicability, and he takes his risks: some sequences – such as the opening, where Stone watches in awe as a couple of soldiers torture and kill in cold blood two women who are suspected to be rebels, or the aforementioned slaughtering of the ox – critically revise the legacy of Mondo movies (such as Jacopetti’s Africa addio, 1966) as Paolo Cavara did in the extraordinary L’occhio selvaggio (The Wild Eye, 1967). What’s more, the theme of male homosexuality – quite unpopular at the time, whereas genre cinema often depicted lesbian relationships – is hinted at with no false discretion, and Traglia’s rape (which somehow predates a similar scene in Paul Verhoeven’s Spetters) was probably the reason that the film was briefly seized. Box office response was moderate, about 250 millions.
Despite all its flaws, Afrika is a further step into no man’s land – that is, a cinema that flirted with both intellectualistic premises and genre material, mixing sex, violence, politics and social commentary with uneasy results. It’s also sort of a declaration of impotence, on behalf of a filmmaker who’s unwilling to embed his creative demands within a classic (and, more important, commercially viable) narrative format.
The Story of an Eye – The Surrealist Years
Cavallone’s subsequent work, Zelda (1974), was dismissed by the author as a mere commercial exploit, in the lines of the morbid, erotic flicks which were in vogue at that time, starting with its title: an evocative, seductive woman’s name, perhaps a nod to the many exotically-named adult comic books which flooded newsstands in that period. What’s more, it was the first time the director actually shot additional hardcore inserts (for the French version) in order to make the result palatable for foreign markets. Even though the Italian version didn’t feature any explicit scene, Zelda was seized. With over 350 millions, it was the director’s most successful film since Le salamandre.
As with Afrika, the story is constructed as a series of flashbacks originating from a violent death: former race car driver Mark Davis (Giuseppe Mattei, credited as James Harris), bound on a wheelchair after a failed suicide attempt, and his lover Clarissa (Halina Kim) are found dead in the former’s villa. Davis’ past, it turns out, is filled with many interchangeable sexual relationships, which all lead to Zelda (Jane Avril), Davis’ wife, described as “a dove, a snake and a bitch at the same time”. Cavallone’s goals (“The crest between life and death, risk as the salt of existence”) come out only partially, and cannot fill the holes of a half-baked plot. Once again, the casting is far from satisfying: blonde Franca Gonella, who plays Zelda’s daughter Ingrid, is laughably unconvincing as a teen girl with braids7. Yet Zelda is shot with a certain elegance: Maurizio Centini’s cinematography is more than adequate, and the carefully edited opening sequence has a mathematical quality which shows Cavallone’s visual craft and sense of pacing. The many documentary inserts – car race scenes, scuba diving, a flight on a glider – are most likely a way to reach a reasonable length (the longest surviving copy runs 77’, and at least 30% of it is made of stock footage), yet they have an unusual, surreal quality, as in the sequence showing a band of horses galopping, in negative, or Davis’ flight on a glider, accompanied by an evocative synth theme (Marcello Giombini’s score is especially interesting). As usual, sex according to Cavallone is neither oleographic nor sleek. On the contrary, it is an instrument of power and prevarication: aggressive, disquieting, funereal. In a scene Zelda allusively caresses a flower while she verbally seduces Clarissa, who’s sitting naked on a couch; a love scene between Franca Gonella and Debebe Eshetu takes place in a cemetery, on a grave. The most astonishing moment takes place at the end, as closing credits are superimposed over an orgy lighted in green and red: overhead shots depict hands caressing other bodies, emotionless eyes, painted faces and so on. It doesn’t quite make sense, but it’s a haunting and fascinating moment. Since the players are not the same as in the rest of the film, and the overal look is quite different, one wonders whether this scene was part of an unfinished project that Cavallone recycled in order to provide a satisfactory ending.
Disappointing as it is, nonetheless Zelda conveyed an urgency which would literally explode in Cavallone’s following film, Maldoror, which is considered – by the few lucky ones who saw it – the director’s masterpiece, and one of the most experimental, harrowing Italian films of the decade. Shot in the summer of 1975 between Italy and Turkey, Maldoror remains the greatest enigma in Cavallone’s filmography. It was completed, edited, sonorized and scored, even though Cavallone denied that in the 1997 “Nocturno” interview. Maria Pia Luzi claimed she viewed a complete workprint at Luciano Vittori’s labs, and that a copy was privately screened at least for potential buyers, but as of today there is no trace of the film. What we do have are a description by the director himself in the 1997 interview, plus the recollections of those who worked on the film, including star Gianni Garko and dop Alessandro Cariello8. What’s more, thanks to the remarkable efforts of Italian film historian Davide Pulici, more material have resurfaced, namely several stills from the set and even a copy of the script.
The inspiration, as the title tells, was Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror), a prose poem written between 1868 and 1869 by Isidore Ducasse, count of Lautréamont, and divided in six “chants”, which centers on the character of Maldoror, an evil being who renounced all ties to conventional morality and decency. Lautréamont’s work was very popular among Surrealists, because of its iconoclastic power and its violent, macabre imagery. Cavallone followed only loosely the poem, interpolating some of its most outrageous content within the story of a film director, Paolo (Gianni Garko) who’s undergoing a deep personal crisis. The first part (which producer Giuseppe Tortorella labelled “mythological porn”) is set in Italy, as Marco is working on a film called Maldoror, and focuses on his tormented relationship with a married woman, Monica (Jane Avril). According to the script, it was filled with excessive and cruel images, extracts from the film-within-a-film which were liberally spliced within the plot, and in their uneasiness somehow predated Pasolini’s Salò.
Cavallone recalled the opening sequence, “The film begins. The screen is completely white […]. Then, all of a sudden, we see a knife ripping the screen apart, and a huge, blasphemous procession comes out. The priest is carrying a giant, phallic cross.” Another memorable moment featured a naked woman and a slaughtered cow: “A cow is shot, hung upside down, skinned, its belly is ripped open… and a naked woman gets out.” An image no doubt inspired by a similar situation in Arrabal’s J’irai comme un cheval fou (1973) and also featured in Gianfranco Mingozzi’s Flavia la monaca musulmana (1974). It doesn’t stop here, though: the woman has a catfight with another woman, whose throat she rips open with a bite. The priest (Piero Mazzinghi) washes her with a water jet originating from the phallic cross, before raping her to death with the same instrument.9 Another scenes featured Monica breaking eggs on the head of a boy (Cavallone’s young son Giulio) and a soldier stabbing the child with his bayonet, and there was even a communion where the priest cuts little boys’ tongues and gives them Coca Cola as a substitute to Holy Wine. According to Cariello, the film’s openly anticlerical content might have been played a part in its disappearence.
The second part followed Paolo’s journey to Turkey – where he and Monica had spent their happier days together – to find locations for his film, and his relationship with camera operator Walter (Martial Boschero) and an American drug-addicted girl (Sherry Buchanan) they met during the trip. Accordingly, it had a more documentaristic approach, with suggestive scenes such as a Dervish dance in Antalia, and displayed another strong literary influence: “The Savage God – A Study of Suicide” (1971) by Al Alvarez, an essay on the relationship between suicide and literature based on Alvarez’ personal experience, in order to explain why and how self-immolation stimulates the imagination of creative individuals. The ending, in fact, had Paolo fall to his death (perhaps accidentally, perhaps not) from the top of a hill: when Walter comes to his aid, the dying filmmaker asks him to keep shooting. Significatively, Cavallone’s script did bear the title “Il dio selvaggio – Maldoror” (The Savage God – Maldoror, even though Cavallone’s hand added the option “malvagio”, “evil”).10 Maria Pia Luzi also named Antonioni’s Professione: reporter (1975) as a possible inspiration, while the visionary sequences owed in equal parts to Sweet Movie, The Holy Mountain and Fellini. Yet above all Maldoror seems a deeply autobiographical project, as shown best by the character of Paolo, a visionary director who has to cope with compromises and ignorant, greedy producers, and whose disillusion with work is reflected in his personal life.
Once again, Cavallone’s two souls – realism and surrealism – were inextricably tied, even more so in his subsequent film, his best-known – or rather, least obscure – to date. In Spell – Dolce mattatoio (Spell – Sweet Abattoir, 1977)11, Cavallone’s documentary eye is sharper than ever (one of the film’s more outstanding qualities is the way it captures Italy’s passage to an era of tv addiction), and the surrealistic imagery detonates on screen with outstanding power. Sade, Bataille, Lautréamont and Gustave Courbet’s scandalous painting “L’origine du monde” are all parts of a dense, multilayered, antinarrative mosaic about the crisis of religious and marxist ideology.12 The main characters somehow perceive this decline, but don’t know how to react to it. The setting – a small country village, Castelnuovo di Porto, where the director lived – emphasize this crisis. Conflicts erupt while the annual celebration of the patron saint takes place: it’s a moment of dyonisiac abandon where betrayals, cruelties, incests and assorted pulsions of love and death all come to the surface. The local priest corrupts the kids by giving them picture cards of saints in order to have them sell lottery tickets; a newspaper announces “Mao is Dead”; a communist photographer (Martial Boschero) confesses his disenchantment with propaganda. “These are just pictures without meaning, hollow images we’ve been conditioned with. They are like washing powders for our conscience” he says referring to stills of Vietnamese refugees. It’s the symptom of a more general mistrust in the political value of all the instruments that reproduce reality. “I haven’t yet understood”, the photographer says, “if my job is a serious one, if it’s got any use to someone or something. I don’t know what’s more important – reality or its image. Or perhaps we should flush everything down the toilet and find new values – imagination, playfulness, sex”.
The photographer tries to escape his existential and political anguish by making patchworks: he glues medical books clippings of body parts over glamorous pictures of models from fashion mags. “Sometimes it’s good to see what we’re like inside” he says. “All illusions disappear, and what’s left is the truth, which is the only medicine to go on.” Later on, he puts a picture of Lenin’s head over a reproduction of Courbet’s painting, which portrays a faceless woman with her legs open wide and her vagina exposed. It seems like he is playing God, trying to create his own personal world in which he dominates events. His estranged, mad wife (Paola Montenero) – who eats her meals in the bathroom and drinks toilet water in a sequence which subverts a famous Buñuelian anti-bourgeois intuition in Le fantôme de la liberté (1974) – tries to imitate his gestures in real life, by opening her palm with a kitchen knife and then trying to cut off her maid’s nipple.
Every character in Spell has an idiosyncratic, problematic relationship with both images and eroticism. The prostitute (Monika Zanchi) who lives “at the end of the village” reads porn comics in her spare time; the butcher has erotic hallucinations (he imagines the prostitute lying naked, her legs spread, on a billiard table while he has to “hole out” a ball) and screws ox carcasses in the refrigerating room; the bourgeois father lets his incestuous desire loose and impregnates his own daughter. The catalyzing element is a homeless young man, who comes out of a cemetery in the opening scene and is, in Cavallone’s words, the director’s alter ego. “I was the one leaving the cemetery […] with the joyful purpose of upsetting people and putting them in front of a mirror, just to see who and what they really were”). Like in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), the wanderer brings the community’s buried secrets to the surface. To quote André Breton’s words on Lautréamont in L’Anthologie de l’humour noir, he is “An absolutely virgin eye […] in wait for the scientific perfection of the world, disregarding the consciously utilitarian nature of this perfection, situating it with all the rest in the light of apocalypse.”
Spell daringly refuses the scheme of pamphlet, thus avoiding its traps, especially aesthetic ones. Narrative is fragmented, and carried on mainly through ellipses and analogies, as well as the “unexpected relationships” between images as theorized by Max Ernst. Cavallone’s control of the subject is outstanding. His main instrument is the systematic resort to the obscene, in the etymological sense of the term: obscenus, ominous. Spell is very close to Bataille’s Story of the Eye, to the point it replicates the infamous image of the eyeball protruding from a vagina, in a scene when actress Josiane Tanzilli inserts a bull’s eye in her crotch. Bataille’s influence – and perhaps a nod to Pasolini’s Salò – is also evident in the scatological ending, where the intercourse between the wanderer and the madwoman suddenly turns bad, as the woman defecates over her lover’s face and literally smothers him to death. The director’s following work would be something even more extreme, though.
Blue Movie (1978) was more of a challenge than a rationally planned project: Cavallone claimed that he made the film after a bet with producer/actor Martial Boschero and directed it in just one week with a ridiculous budget, using real-life environments and unexperienced actors13. Editing took ten more days, and on July 8, 1978 Blue Movie hit the red light circuit, where it became a modest hit (box office results were about the same as Spell, about 230 millions liras: quite a remarkable sum for a porn film). The Board of Censors had asked for a number of cuts, though, eliminating all the hardcore stuff: a few fragments survive in the copy released on VHS in Italy in 1999, while other explicit material later resurfaced in a super8 copy. The film’s success left Cavallone totally unprepared: “I was bewildered by the box office results. Blue Movie was meant to piss off the raincoat crowd, it was such an antagonist film…” He was right. Despite the inclusion of explicit sexual acts, it’s hard to imagine something more at odds with the unwritten laws that rule hardcore porn. The brief sex sessions are jarring and frustrating in the extreme. There is no climax, and no catharsis.
The plot looks like a riff on the director’s early films. It’s the story of the relationship between a photographer, Claudio (Claude Maran) who’s obsessed with the symbols of consumerism, and three different women: his victimized model Daniela (Dirce Funari), who accepts the role the photographer’s ultimate slave/object; Silvia (Danielle Dugas), who suffers from sexual hallucinations and fantasies of men intent on raping her, taking refuge in Claudio’s house; and a homeless woman, Leda (Leda Simonetti), who accepts Claudio’s invitation because she has nowhere else to go. Their lives intertwine and gradually collapse as they virtually isolate themselves from the outside world; the reclusive, puzzling foursome is only sporadically interrupted by the visits of a black gay man (Joseph Dickson) who comes looking for Silvia.
The importance of this obscure, vilified film goes beyond its peculiar cinematic qualities. Italian cinema of the late ‘70s was a dying anymal, and the stench of death pervaded the works of auteurs and genre cinema alike. On one side, there were Pasolini’s Salò (possibly the single most important cultural work to be conceived in the decade, and a chilling prophecy of the country’s future), Bertolucci’s Novecento Act II, Fellini’s Casanova, Ferreri’s L’ultima donna and Ciao Maschio; on the other, the Nazi-erotic genre, the cannibal film, plus over-the-top gore movies and a number of unclassifiable stuff – like Blue Movie. Pasolini divided Salò in three circles – Manias, Shit and Death, each overtopping the previous one – to show the progressive nullification of the human being. Blue Movie goes one step further, to the point that everything is reduced to a mere commodity since the beginning, including human beings. Therefore, animate and inanimate objects become one and the same. Claudio doesn’t photograph women anymore: he is attracted by objects, and treats his model as if she was one (“I’ll turn you into a can”). There is no difference between a coke can and a nude body: both are being used to sell goods, both are being sold. Both are ultimately full of piss and shit. In what is perhaps one of the most conceptually daring and extreme moments ever committed to celluloid, Daniela is held prisoner inside a room where she has to defecate and urinate in order to fill up Marlboro packets and Coke cans, and receives vacuum canned junk food and cigarettes in exchange, in a bitter and nihilistic mockery of consumerism’s “product for use” urgency and the capitalistic exploitation of the working classes as well (“Bastard… just one cigarette for two packets full of shit” Funari complains about her “wage”). Packets and cans are then put in a fridge, the true monolyth of Italian “boom”, the symbol of a hard-fought wealth, a proof that “we are not hungry anymore.”
The graphically portrayed scatological excesses make Blue Movie an ideal prosecution of Spell, yet even bleaker and more unflinchingly filmed. Cavallone systematically proceeds to reject every aesthetic rule just like his protagonist repudiates what is commonly accepted as “beautiful”. After the formal complexity of the director’s previous works, cinéma-vérité flavour is finally and fully captured by the minuscule budget. Yet once again the use of surrealistic flashes, unnerving details, and a-rhythmic cuts continually catches the viewer off-guard. Some of Silvia’ hallucinations are almost horror movie stuff, such as the sight of a hand coming out of a tub filled with bright red liquid and grabbing the girl, Repulsion-style; but the film as a whole is a non-linear, even puzzling experience. Clearly Cavallone had been influenced by Sweet Movie (1974), Dusan Makavejev’s grim pastiche about the failure of both Capitalism and Communism: his use of stock footage (WW2 concentration camps and bonzes setting themselves on fire) is not simply a reference to Makavejev’s film, though, but one of the director’s habits since his very first films. With Blue Movie, he perfected this practice and enounced the philosophy behind it: under the opening credits a series of camera shots is accompanied by the sound of gun shots. Images are bullets, they are powerful weapons that can hurt the eyes and consciences alike. As the director explained, “Extreme is what breaks the rules. Sade’s philosophy was extreme, but in a pre-rivolutionary society. Bataille is the symbol of ‘extreme’ in a bourgeois society. Nowadays being extreme means something beyond that: it’s something that brings into play one’s responsability and which crosses every single economic class like a red thread, simply because there are no classes anymore. It’s quite a dangerous matter.”
As Italian critic and Cavallone scholar Alberto Pezzotta notes, Blue Movie’s overall bleakness does not exclude the director’s peculiar, vitriolic humour, which on the other end was absent in Spell. The black man makes rambling speeches, the radio vomits absurdist slogans (“Not messages, but massages!”) and excerpts from Alice In Wonderland, while the use of classical music emphasizes Cavallone’s idea to “piss off the raincoat crowd”: most notably, Offenbach’s Can Can playing as Funari performs a (simulated) fellatio deprives the act of its function – excitement – and turns it into a joke on the audience, as Cavallone purposely avoids any explicit detail. Later on, Offenbach’s music is used to comment a scene where Maran gives Funari some food in exchange for a hand-job, the explicit shots edited almost subliminally with those of the woman voraciously licking breadcrumbs off the man’s chest as she masturbates him.
Cavallone’s protagonists often kill themselves or try to, like Frank/Eva in Afrika, Mark Davis in Zelda, Paolo in Maldoror. That’s the case with Claudio as well in the film’s enigmatic ending: but in Blue Movie, the real suicide is that of the director himself, and it’s an on-screen suicide, Cavallone-style. Crossing the boundaries, diving head-first into hardcore porn while at the same time putting on screen his most uncompromising political worldview meant crossing a line and never look back. Once Cavallone had ambitions. He thought that a film could change the world, or at least kick in the groin those who thought it couldn’t. With Blue Movie, he finally gave up. Significantly, most of the director’s following work would fall into the hardcore genre, while the only non-hardcore film, the prehistoric adventure Il padrone del mondo, would be signed with a pseudonym, Dirk Morrow.
Blue Movies – The Porn Holocaust Years
Invisibility was the destiny of Cavallone’s next films. Shot in Summer 1979 and released in May ’80, Blow Job – Soffio erotico (1980: once again a Warholian title, even though the original was supposed to be La strega nuda/The Naked Witch) was an extremely rushed production14. Shooting originally had to take place entirely in a villa near Riolo, in North-East Italy, near the city of Faenza15. But after one of the producers committed suicide during filming, Cavallone had to radically rethink the project, as he suddenly found himself with no money at all. The extreme poverty shows throughout the film, and it’s sad to see how the director had to work virtually with nothing. Yet the result is strangely fascinating. Technically, Blow Job is hardcore porn, since it does feature several explicit sex scenes. Nevertheless, it is the closest Cavallone came to make a gothic horror movie: at times, it almost looks like a thinking man’s version of a Luigi Batzella film (think of Nuda per Satana, 1974, for instance). Its complex, Escherian plot deserves a detailed summary.
The opening sequence is truly unsettling in itself: the first images show the park of a luxurious villa, with secular trees under a rainstorm, then a subjective camera enters a squalid hotel hall, accompanied by a gloomy music, like a sort of malevolent, eerie present: the film’s two main settings are introduced and shown as strictly complementary – a hint at what will follow. Cut to a naked couple in a room: actors Stefano Vicinelli (Danilo Micheli) and Diana (Anna Massarelli) don’t have the money to pay the bill. With an embarassed phone call, the hotel clerk asks them to pay the hotel fee and leave. Meanwhile, upstairs, a woman is menaced by someone or something unseen. She screams and cries for help, then jumps out of the window. The aftermath of her fall looks like an outtake from Joe D’Amato film, with intestines spilled all over the pavement. (“Hey,” Stefano says, “it looks like somebody threw a bowl of spaghetti upside down!”). Stefano and Diana take advantage of the ensuing chaos and leave. At a racetrack, Stefano meets a scarred woman in her forties, Angela (Anna Bruna Cazzato), who helps him pick a winning horse, and in return asks them a ride to her villa in the countryside: she wants Dario to help her “pass the gate”. During the trip they meet a trio of surreal characters, while Stefano glimpses – and it’s an impressive, eerie moment – a biker whose head looks like a skull. At the villa, a sinister-looking, equally scarred butler, Alphonse (Valerio Isidori16) awaits them. Then, even stranger things ensue. Angela puts a spell on Diana, who gets inexplicably ill; Stefano goes looking for a doctor and meets a young, beautiful woman named Sibilla (Mirella Venturini), who gives him a magic powder to cure Diana. Blow Job’s second half conveys a weird dreamlike quality. Angela and Diana leave Stefano alone in the villa and leave for a ball: in the middle of the night Sibilla comes out of a mirror and takes Stefano to a cave, where she hypnotizes him and they makes love. Cavallone was especially proud of the sequence, especially the 360° shots following Sibilla as she moves in circles around the man, like a predator.
Another beautiful, eerie moment is the scene where Stefano, in pitch black darkness, finds himself surrounded by a group of old men carrying candles who start waltzing around him; when lights turn on, a ball is revealed to be taking place in the villa’s huge salon: the dancers – many of whom wear grotesque masks – are reflected on mirrors all over a wall and Alphonse operates a bull’s eye on the participants. Apparently, Stefano is in two different places at the same time: in the cave with Sibilla and at the villa, with a naked Diana seemingly in a hypnotic trance, dancing with the invited in turn, regardless of him. The mysterious biker arrives, and turns out to be a woman with a skull mask: she starts dancing too – a tribal, primitive dance – and all those she passes by drop down dead, until she and Diana are the only ones left in the room. Diana gets mad at Stefano – she utters the same words as the suicidal woman at the film’s beginning – and falls out of a window. Stefano is left alone with Angela: it turns out that she and Sibilla are one and the same, a powerful witch who absorbs her lovers’ energy in order to reincarnate into a new body. Stefano confronts and apparently destroys them by breaking the salon’s huge mirror.
He then suddenly finds himself back at the hotel. The woman who has committed suicide is revealed to be Diana. Among the crowd, Stefano glimpses Sibilla and Alphonse, staring at him. This circular, enigmatic ending is a powerful, absurdist coup-de-theatre that somehow recalls the work of David Lynch in the way it shatters both the film’s narrative and the audience’s perception. As Sibilla repeatedly says, reason must be left aside in order to understand events (“Get rid of the brain. That’s what prevents you to see the cosmic dance we are playing”), while throughout the movie Stefano is told that he is not free, that everything was predestined since the beginning.
Blue Movie was a stark, grim and matter of fact view on contemporary world; Blow Job, on the other hand, is metaphysical and elusive, even escapist. It’s as if Cavallone lost interest in the everyday world and concentrated on his own spiritual side: the film is filled with striking literary references that vary from Carlos Castaneda’s writings to Aldous Huxley’s essay on drugs, “The Doors of Perception”. As Cavallone stated, “the whole film was focused on the possibility of escaping from our own bodies, by modifying sensorial perceptions through the use of drugs or self-concentration.” Yet, at one point Sibilla says: “The world is tired, its end is near, people have lost the will of life….” No wonder that the film’s main characters are desperately void inside. Stefano says: “I have many air bubbles in my head .. Many white air bubbles.”
Blow Job is a fascinating oddity: puzzling, scaring, even darkly comical at times. As in Blue Movie, absurd off-screen voices are used as a commentary and a counterpart to the characters’ deadpan behaviour: at the racetrack, for instance, an annoying announcer keeps repeating that a boy got lost and is waiting for his mother: soon, it will be Stefano and Diana’s turn to get lost; there’s even room for one truly grim sight gag in the final scene as a cop picks up Diana’s offals from the pavement with his bare hands and puts them in a plastic bag, while indifferently talking to Stefano.
Despite its technical faults, continuity errors and miserable budget, Blow Job is technically more accomplished than Blue Movie and is perhaps the full expression of the director’s mystical and esoteric interests. But the filmic imagery is also extremely sharp, echoing Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) with the recurring character of the skull/biker, and Buñuel’s Cet Obscure object du desir (1977) with the dual appearence of the witch. The result is one of the director’s best.
The same cannot be said of La gemella erotica – Due gocce d’acqua (The Erotic Twin – Dead Ringers, 1980), a bad erotic thriller shot on a shoestring where the director’s hand is almost unrecognizable. Although all circulating copies do not feature explicit sex scenes, it’s likely La gemella erotica was shot hardcore, given the presence in the cast of such porn regulars as Guya Lauri Filzi, Sabrina Mastrolorenzi and Pauline Teutscher. Cavallone claimed he left the set during shooting, yet he is credited as editor. Il padrone del mondo (Master of the World, 1983), was a rip-off of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s La guerre du feu (1981) set during a pre-historian era, with the director’s care for antropologically correct behavior on behalf of the non-speaking cast making up for plot shortcomings, and a good deal of gory effects, such as warriors eating their dead enemies’ brains. Shot on the Canary Islands with a slightly higher budget than usual for Cavallone’s standards, it wasn’t even released theatrically in Italy due to the financial breakdown of the distributor, Stefano Film. Cavallone also wrote a similarly-themed story that Dardano Sacchetti would later develop into the script for Umberto Lenzi’s Iron Master – La guerra del ferro (1983).
It was bad times for Italian cinema, and for Cavallone as well. In the summer of 1981 he accepted to direct another hardcore porn for Boschero and Belpedio. He ended up making two films: Baby Sitter (also known as Il nano erotico)17 and Pat, una donna particolare. Both were shot in June in a villa near Rome – the same one seen in Massaccesi’s Rosso sangue/Absurd – with a cast that included a trio of French actresses, Dominique St. Clair, Nadine Roussial and Mika Barthel, a couple of Italian porn regulars, Pauline Teutscher and Sabina Mastrolorenzi, plus several improvised actors such as the Italo-kurdish extra Serwan A. Hoshyar18. For himself, Cavallone chose the pseudonym Baron Corvo. Plots are definitely weird: Baby Sitter tells the story of a girl (Sabrina Mastrolorenzi) who is employed by a couple to take care of their baby. But the child turns out to be a malevolent, sex-crazed dwarf, while his wife/accomplice (Dominique St. Clair) is used to film him while he rapes his victims. Pat, una donna particolare is about a perverted trio of thugs (a dwarf, a shemale and a man) who lure young would-be actresses to their villa to shoot snuff movies.
Both films are noteworthy for their sheer unpleasantness and contempt for standard hardcore narrative patterns: the “star” of both movies is a dwarf (“Petit Loup” according to the credits), the character of Pat in the eponymous film is a transsexual who, in the film’s longest sex scene, copulates with a male partner on a wooden table19, whereas in Baby Sitter the dwarf has a whole variety of plastic dildos which he uses to rape poor Sabrina Mastrolorenzi (he even wears one on his forehead). Enemas, electrified dildos and other bizarre sexual practices are featured. Here and there, Cavallone spliced in a few of his trademark references: Pat’s opening sequence features a man walking with the dwarf on his shoulders, an image reminiscent of Jodorowsky’s El Topo; the dwarf is called “Peeping”, an obvious nod to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Literary references include André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ La Motocyclette, (Baby Sitter features masturbation atop a speeding motorbike) and the scandalous writer Frederick William Rolfe, to whom the name Baron Corvo refers. But Cavallone’s heart obviously wasn’t in them. “Alberto did them for money, I wouldn’t say negligently, but doing things his own way, just to piss off the producer,” says Cavallone’s son Giulio: perhaps he asked money for a project, but the producer asked him in return to make two porn movies. “You know, this is a compromise that could have made sense in Alberto’s logic: ‘You don’t let me do the film I want to do and instead you almost force me to make shitty hardcore porn? Well, that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna shoot these films but I won’t put my name on them, and I’m gonna do them my own way!’”20. At times the author’s pessimism trascends his work-for-hire situation: Pat – the more personal and interesting of the two films – is about the mercification of death through cinema, a logical step beyond Blue Movie.
According to some sources, Cavallone shot several more porn flicks, whose titles are still unknown, between 1984 and ‘85. In August 1984 he apparently started working on a film called Il cliente misterioso (The Mysterious Customer) starring Mirella Venturini, but no other information about this one exist. In the mid-Eighties the director accepted a number of extemporaneous, humiliating assignments: Luigi Cozzi recalls his meeting with Cavallone sometime in the early Eighties, when the latter was supervising dubbing for foreign porn flicks. In the same period, Cavallone also directed the shot-on-video intervals where Ilona Staller introduced her Cicciolina cartoons for VHS release. Then, a decade of silence, sporadically interrupted by minor jobs, such as the screenplay revision and storyboards for a little-seen animated feature, I sogni proibiti di Tommy (1993) and some work on domestic television for RAI.
In their September 1997 issue,“Nocturno Cinema” published a long, detailed interview with Alberto Cavallone, who openly discussed his career, unveiling many mysteries yet at times adding others (such as the statement that Maldoror was shot in 1977 instead of 1975, and the denial that Blow Job featured any hardcore scenes except for “one simulated [sic] blow job”: two examples of the director’s peculiar way of revisiting his own career by bending truth and lies in a way similar to Jess Franco’s. The result was a fascinating, compelling overview who brought curiosity and the critical rediscovery of the filmmaker’s work, especially Spell – dolce mattatoio, which is now considered by many scholars one of Italy’s most important films of the Seventies. What’s more, with the help of Manlio Gomarasca and Davide Pulici, the magazine’s co-founders, Cavallone started working on a script for what would be his comeback as a director, a morbid thriller tentatively called Internet Story. Sadly it would never happen: Cavallone died on November 12, 1997. Ten years later, his work is still a fascinating enigma, which has only partially resurfaced. —esotikafilm.com