Un Amleto di men (One Hamlet Less) is the last feature film from Carmelo Bene, stage director, actor and writer, who made a few films in the sixties and seventies. They are very much of their era: Bene seems to use theatrical sources not so much as dramas to be adapted but as texts to be exploded, so that his Hamlet film features quotations from Freud on the Oedipal myth and a restaging of Arthurian legend, along with a mish-mash of scenes from Shakespeare.
Visually and intellectually it's either beautiful or incoherent or perhaps incoherently beautiful or beautifully incoherent. Most of the action happens against a glaring white infinity wall, with simple but stunning sets assembled out of colored blocks, spheres or assemblages of books: Bene designed the film as well as directing and starring.
Most of the scenes have their origins in the Elizabethan tragedy, but poor Will probably wouldn't have recognized them: Bene cuts them up, shuffles them together (playing one speech on top of another, or repeating lines to create insensate incantations), truncates them and interrupts them. Hamlet seems to get all his lines handed to him on scrap of paper: dutifully he reads them out, usually very angrily. Everybody seems to be angry all the time, maybe because they have to wear such silly clothes. Except the women, who are usually nude. The ceaselessly swirling camera keeps crashing into bare bottoms so the screen becomes a big pink bifurcated flesh-wall. When Hamlet has his big set-to with Ophelia, the character has been split it two: he argues with a naked chick in a wimple and huge magnifying eyeglasses who keeps biting his finger, while another girl with more clothes reads the dialogue to herself over in the corner. To understand any of it you have to know the play, but the point is most of us do, so anything goes. Or does it?
"Whatever happened to Shakespeare?" Tom Stoppard once complained, feeling that directors were having to much of their own way at the bard's expense. He didn't know Bene. In his previous film, an ultraviolet vampire version of Salome, Oscar Wilde doesn't even get a credit.
I'm not sure I approve, but Un Amleto di meno is diverting and short, and has a Ken Russell lusty vigor: some of the color is so retina-searing you can't quite believe it's there, but fortunately even though many shots blur past at lightning speed, they leave fluorescent after-images on your frontal lobes so you can enjoy them at leisure.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.