Daliah Lavi had an odd career, when you think about it: ballet student, German pop singer, Israeli soldier and international film star, maybe best known for Casino Royale (the silly one). In 1963 she got the living crap beat out of her in two films, Mario Bava's The Whip and the Body, a ripe slice of S&M gothic horror with Christopher Lee as a flagellating phantom (maybe), and Brunello Rondi's Il demonio (The Demon), which is an even weirder piece of work.
Rondi also had an odd career: an intellectual who provided regular screenwriting services for Fellini (La dolce vita, 8 1/2, Satyricon), his directing career slid rapidly into exploitation movies, crime to gialli to porno, which he appears to have attempted to imbue with some social commentary, with who knows what success? Il demonio is the first of his directorial efforts I've seen.
Rondi plunges us into a strange world, a mountainous village in southern Italy, where Lavi, victim of an amour fou, attempts in desperation to cast a spell on her former lover (spaghetti western mainstay Frank Wolff), who is soon to marry another. Obviously suffering that excess of passion which becomes to all intents and purposes inseparable from madness, Lavi's character is regarded by the villagers not as a victim but as diabolically possessed, to be exorcised or burned. Apart from a couple of men who regard her as sexually fair game: a shepherd and a priest.
Brunelli seems to have borrowed some of his premise from Fellini's script for Rossellini's L'amore (episode: The Miracle) in which Fellini himself played the lecherous shepherd who rapes simple-minded peasant Anna Magnani after claiming to be Saint Joseph. That film caused considerable outrage when belatedly released in the US to capitalize on the scandal of movie star Ingrid Bergman ditching her husband to tun off with Roberto, and Rondi may have hoped to cause similar controversy. True, he doesn't impute any pretense of holiness to the first abuser, but the second is a real priest, and this was long before the realization became widely known or believed that Catholic priests have, frequently, committed rape while protected by their authority in the Church.
The movie doesn't provide us with any guidance as to how to take its story: to me it seems violently anti-clerical, but I guess you could even view it and assume that Lavi is authentically possessed: she performs an impressively grotesque, scary "spider walk" of the kind later adopted by Linda Blair in the most famous deleted scene of The Exorcist. My interpretation is feminist, but this is complicated by Rondi's casting of Lavi and his camera's fetishization of her suffering, some self-inflicted (a spell requires blood: she pricks her breast) some forced on her by brutish others.
Since nobody else is afforded any sympathy, Lavi becomes our heroine by default, though she's deranged, a stalker and self-destructive. She's doing it all for love, which our society pretends to value above all else, but not when it gets this disruptive.
The film looks stunning: one hopes the script was inspired to some extent by the locations, since to write "she looks down on the church from a high cliff" would seem reckless unless you have the spot in mind. True, Rondi is slightly zoom-happy in the fashion of the time: he's the first to admit it. And the restless kineticism suits the leading character, driven, like in François Truffaut's The Story of Adele H, to become a martyr for romantic passion.
The peculiar affect of the thing is intriguing. It's a catalogue of personal disasters, but not depressing the way a Lars von Trier film would tend to be, and it's all aestheticized suffering, but it stops just short of eroticizing pain. Female suffering is beautified without being glamorized: perhaps something the film learned from the rich history of Catholic art.
What the hell are we to make of a film like this? Or careers like this? How do you solve a problem like Daliah Lavi?
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.