05 October, 2006

DEPARTED 2006: Renato Polselli

Black Magic Rites (aka The Reincarnation Of Isabel) 
I don't know where Renato Polselli is right at this moment, but I have the feeling he's having a laugh at the world he left behind at the age of 84 last weekend. The most underrated and least understood of all the Italian directors of popular genre films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s he kept hoping to make yet another film right up until his death. Holding a degree in Philsophy his films would become increasingly structured as a series of dialogues, presentational rather than representational in style and emphasizing ideas through images. He was different than his colleagues Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti in that he disdained even low-tech special effects, continued to embrace the Italian Neorealist aesthetic which they broke away from, and in his first horror film recontextualized through satire and irony the Gothic stylistics which are now revered by fans of that era.

A wonderfully dubious pleasure, L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO (1960), which beat Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY to the post as the first modern Italian vampire film (Freda's 1957 I VAMPIRI had no vampires, only a blood-draining scientist), is a film in which one shares its author's amusement with its wacky characters and atmosphere. It never takes itself too seriously and like the Cheshire cat, leaves its smile behind. Perhaps RP took his cue from Ernesto Gastaldi's script, but vampirism in that film is presented as a an evolutionary perversion, a kind of codependency practiced by Walter Brandi's marauding blood bank which is visited for regular withdrawls by the Countess. Quoting Fisher's DRACULA, Dreyer's VAMPYR and Fernando Mendez's Mexican brace, IL VAMPIRO and its sequel (also quoted in Polselli's even more outrageously avant-garde IL MOSTRO DELL OPERA (1964), Polselli also created another genre mutation: the horror-musical. Brandi's unique, ugly vampire in L'AMANTE... and Giuseppe Addobatti (someone should write some kind of study on this great, neglected actor) in IL MOSTRO...are like no other vampires before or since. The slutty "ballerinas" of the former and the trashy ballet of the latter provide the sleaze for boxoffice while Polselli presents his horror scenes from one stunningly original camera angle after another. There's also a sense self reflexive humor and an incongrously light, breezy tone to the affairs alternating with the thunderously scored vampire attacks.
Polselli totally did away with linear story telling with the jaw-dropping RITI..., best known as THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL, which begins in the middle of its tale of a burned witch's vengeance (shades of Bava's BLACK SUNDAY again) and the true origins of the legend of Count Dracula. Not an easy film to watch or comprehend for even those who are receptive to its almost Godardian attempts to force the viewer to abandon Aristotilean poetics and genre templates and reconsider what cinema can be if one is willing to leave all preconceptions behind. It's also chock full of nudity, blood, gore and tortured performers screaming Polselli's consciousness-cracking theorems.
A mention must also be made of the even more extreme DIABOLIQUE-like giallo LA VERITA SECONDO SATANA (1972), in which the late Isarco Ravaioli (whose 1984 death was reported on the internet recently) finds 1001 ways to mentally, sexually and physically torture Polselli's favorite scream queen, Rita Calderoni (who also appears in DELIRIUM, RITI..., and the 1979 TURIN, HEADQUARTERS OF VICE for Polselli, appearing increasingly stressed and aroused by the sadomasochistic excesses she's called upon by RP to perform, and she always performs them with courage and passion). Mickey Hargitay wondered on the DELIRIUM DVD's making-of documentary whatever happened to Rita Calderoni and one can only speculate, but she must have been some gutsy lady to endure this series of films which such dignity and class. She was a trouper.

LA VERITA... doesn't tell the gospel truth at all, ironically, but is a series of "lies" which add up to a version of the truth: Ravaioli stages his murder as kind of the ultimate sexual/emotional revenge only to get caught in his own dialectic, finally getting a much desired and deserved real death the second time around, leaving the murderess to phone the police on herself. This is all interrupted by Ed Wood-style orgies (cf TAKE IT OUT IN TRADE) orchestrated by a wildly enthusiastic black actress with VERY big hair. She's a joy to behold. This film also has one of the most hauntingly beautiful female vocals lines we have ever heard.

Interestingly, the final image of LA VERITA..., or at least the version we consulted, is exactly same as one the opening shots of OSCENITA: the film's heroine posed nude in a stylized posture on a table as pulsating colored lights play over her body.
Even crazier and more experimental (although the forced alterations by the Italian censor may account for the discontinuity this time out) is the category-defying OSCENITA, filmed in 1973 and finally released in an redubbed version in 1980. Once again Ravaioli stars, but this time as an questionably enthusiastic sociologist who moderates a therapy session of a group sex addicts whose symptomatic behavior is illustrated by mondo-style flashbacks (or are they flash-forwards or sideways? It's hard to keep track of timelines in the mad world of RP). This film features every transgression under the sun and then some. If you can imagine it, it's here. Polselli may have had a modern day DECAMERON in mind, but this is far, far away from the mainstream or any other stream on Planet Earth.

Filmed at Gordon Mitchell's legendary Cave Filmstudio there are everal hardcore and softer versions of OSCENITA, all of which are nearly impossible to see except through 9th generation bootlegs. This was made, according to Polselli, to illustrate the abuse of the female of the species in a socio-historical context. Some will damn it as vile sexploitation. Opening scene: a man forces himself on a female patron in a cinema playing a film featuring Dean Stratford (Dino Strano) ripping off the clothes of the female lead in OSCENITA which becomes a Catch-22 style structural conundrum as our screaming heroine flees Stratford's assault by flagging down a passing motorist only to be sexually assaulted by the equally brutish driver who pulls her out of the car, begins to rape her but is elimated by some guys who pop out of the bushes only to continue their own attack upon our heroine, who is eventually rescued by Stratford after he has finally caught up with the action. But we never get a similar chance to "catch up" to the increasingly frenetic and always sexually explicit action as Polselli's wildly swish-panning camera, blinding lighting design and free-associative montage is designed to barrage the retina, tease the Unconscious and outrage the moral majority in all of us.
 Every single object in this film is fetishized and becomes an erotic component of Polselli's obsessive, macabre mise-en-scene.  He always frames actors as objects viewed through anthropomorphic screens such as statuary, furniture, grates and miscellaneous architecture. His wildly unfettered use of zip-zooms in and out of figures and space makes Jess Franco's notorious telezoom-asthetic look conservative in comparison. Once again, this is not an easy viewing experience and some of the images depict very ugly events. Although it's never clear, and when it is it's always disturbingly subversive, Renato Polselli had SOMETHING to say and created a boundry breaking style to say it with.

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