The Forgotten: Body Snatchers

I always felt an icky attraction-repulsion, more slanted towards repulsion, for Liliana Cavani's most celebrated film, The Night Porter. But thinking about it now, I have to give her credit for boldly delving into the psychology of the persecutor-victim relationship in a way that no previous filmmaker quite had.

If that movie still makes me uncomfortable, I was nevertheless instantly psyched to see I cannibali (The Cannibals, 1970), a sci-fi hippy version of Antigone starring Britt Ekland. Maybe I'm shallow.

(Hippy science fiction movies go all the way from the super-respectable and respect-worthy 2001 at one extreme, past Silent Running somewhere in the middle, all the way to Jim McBride's 1971 post-atomic Adam and Eve story Glen and Randa.  It's a sub-genre that can get a bit embarrassing, what with Bruce Dern lecturing us about "the simple beauty of a leaf" and all, but having been entered the world in 1967 maybe I'm kind of inoculated from birth against that kind of cringe-response.)

Pierre Clementi awakens, washed up on a beach. He finds himself in a strange land where he can't speak the language (Italian, though posters are helpfully printed in English too, to help international sales). Stranger still, the streets are full of dead bodies, ignored by the populace as they go about their inscrutable business.

As a device for transforming a modern city (Milan, I think) into a fantasy land, the sprawling cadavers are a masterstroke. Every street shot has an eerie, surreal feel, as if news footage of some terrorist aftermath had gotten blurred with ordinary CCTV shots. Otherwise, Cavani films modern architecture and avoids any overtly futuristic production design, which works well since the late sixties was one of those periods when everything was trying to look as futuristic as possible. Godard may have originated the trick in Alphaville, but Cavani and her cinematographer freshen the look with widescreen and color, and giving all the urban exteriors a blueish, gunmetal cast.

Clementi partners up with Ekland's Antigone, a child of the upper classes who wants to shift her brother's body from the store front where it's been left. Apparently the state has decreed that all slain rebels must be left where they fall: the film doesn't fully explain how this is made practical, but neither did Sophocles I guess. The movie also never explains what the nature of their rebellion was. We do see a street-cleaning van spraying what might be disinfectant over everything, and an old couple are briefly seen holding napkins to their noses as if a bit of a pong was issuing from the abandoned stiffs.

Having disposed of one corpse (though it's never clear how Ekland recruits the uncomprehending Clementi), the pair start clearing up more, and then the authorities move in on them... 

Some of this is heavy, some of it is surprisingly light, and Ennio Morricone's chirpy score assists the film's better impulses: in particular, the heroes' flight through the streets and buildings, pursued by soldiers with tracker dogs, allows for some arresting, fleet-footed moments. Escaping a sauna, the pair discard their towels and run naked in the streets (nudity in an Ekland film is something you can set your watch by, though I'm not completely sure the pink derriere displayed is hers, and one can't compare with the one in The Wicker Man as that was a Scottish stunt butt, recruited locally), then drag up as priests, then soldiers. While in clerical attire they enter the military recruiting offices, where possible cadets are given childish intelligence tests at gunpoint, then castrated to turn them into obedient puppets of the state. Britt tries to warn those in the waiting line without wholly breaking character: "In nomine Patris et fillii et Spiritus Sancti... they're castrating you..."

This diversion into Wilhem Reich's theories on the mass psychology of fascism (in which the healthy sex drive is suppressed and replaced with a violent impulse to repress others), and the strange wit with which it's delivered, isn't maintained throughout, and we do get some of the less attractive qualities of hippy attitude: assertion of the right to be sententious and self-righteous without making sense, for instance. And there's a rather dreadful song with lyrics like "I'll just fly away on my blue horse," which might make even a sympathetic listener's trigger finger start itching. But as a visually and musically striking sixties relic and as a very unusual political sci-fi movie, this offers considerable pleasure. And while Ekland may not be Garbo, she's really good in this.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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  • David Ehrenstein

    Cavani’s most interesting movie, IMO is her adaptation of Curzio Malaparte’s “The Skin.” I attended its one and only U.S. showing in which audience members ran screaming to the exist because of the films opening scene in which an talian pasant ran happily towards his U.S. liberators only to be run over by a tank which slicked him two — top to bottom.After that plans for a wider release were cancelled.

    Pierre Clementi is an axiom of the cinema and the auteur of almost all the films he appears in (save for"La Cicatrice Interieure" whose auteur is Nico.)

    Who can forget the title song of this one — delivered in English — with the haunting refrain “Call me a cannibal – I won’t die!”

  • David Cairns

    The song is actually my least favourite part of the soundtrack, which is otherwise prime Morricone, funny and strange and emotional.

    I’ll have to look out for The Skin, clearly!

  • David Ehrenstein

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