Tuesday, September 8, 2015

THE SKIN (La Pelle, 1981)

The ending of Liliana Cavani's account of the ambiguous liberation of Italy feels like a culmination of trends high and low in postwar Italian cinema. After spending most of the picture in Naples, the American army is finally closing in on Rome. Once the locals are persuaded that the men on tanks aren't Germans, they welcome the advancing troops, singing, dancing and waving American flags.  It's the sort of image Americans got used to seeing in newsreels. Here's a guy waving a flag with his kid riding on his shoulders, dancing backwards in front of a tank, until he stumbles and falls.


Cavani pulls no punches here. For one moment she nearly out-gores all her Italian peers. The effect is crude but effective and the director lingers on it. We get one more close look at the bloody sludge that had been a man moments ago -- his son managed to fall between the treads and scrambles out from under once the tank stops -- and then we see Marcello Mastroianni observing the spectacle.



Mastroianni is only the most obvious Felliniesque element in this account of la dura vita. He's playing Curzio Malaparte, the author whose book Cavani adapted, a onetime fascist and onetime prisoner of Mussolini's regime, now commissioned as a captain and acting as an interpreter for the Americans. There's something odd about the interpreting that makes me question whether the Cohen Media DVD has the definitive soundtrack. Their edition is in Italian but dubs the American actors (or actors playing Americans) almost entirely into Italian, so that an Italian character will speak Italian, and then an American character will ask Malaparte, in Italian, what the Italian said, and Malaparte will translate from Italian to Italian. Maybe that didn't bug the Italians the way it bugs me, but it would have been cool to hear Burt Lancaster's own voice. Lancaster for the Italians seems to have been what Olivier was for Americans: the mark of quality for a prestigious production with international aspirations. For once the American star plays an American in an Italian film. While IMDB and Wikipedia identify his character as General Mark Clark, the film's English subtitles dub him Mark Cork, perhaps out of deference to the actual Clark, who was still living when the film was first released. Cork is not flattering to Clark. He's an egoist fond of referring to himself in the third person and describing the army he commands as his personal possession. He spends most of the film negotiating with a local mafioso (Carlo Giuffre) over the transfer of a few hundred German POWs. They haggle over the local's compensation: he wants to be paid back for feeding his prisoners, by the pound. At least the Germans are assured of eating heartily, whether they want to or not.

Most of the people in Sicily aren't as assured of daily meals, and for the most part La Pelle chronicles their survival measures, most of which involve offering themselves to G.I.s or whoever shows up seeking supple flesh. Whatever indignities fascism imposed on Italians, liberation brought something seemingly new: the commodification of modern man. While the powerful men haggle over the sale of former warriors, the poor can only sell themselves, or their children. The common American soldier proves a willing customer -- the lines at a brothel wind down several flights of stairs -- but the higher-echelon types Malaparte has to show around get indignant at Italians' apparent surrender of dignity. For much of the picture our hero has to squire around Col. Deborah Wyatt, a military aviatrix and powerful politician's wife (Alexandra King, apparently in her only film role) whom Cork wants to get rid of as soon as possible. Some characteristic Mastroianni comedy ensues, particularly an upside-down airplane ride that Caviani ought to have milked for more of Marcello's comic discomfort but films flatly with an exterior process shot. Things get more Felliniesque as Malaparte introduces Wyatt to the dregs of society. Here are mothers prostituting their young sons to turbaned strangers -- where on earth are they coming from in the middle of a war? Here is some sort of homosexual party (with some rocking Sicilian folk music) highlighted by the ritual birth to a male mother of a mythologically endowed baby; its phallus is as big as the rest of him. Wyatt is horrified by it all, as are other idealistic Americans; none of this matches their expectations for the behavior of a liberated people. Malaparte has to remind them that the Italians have lost the war, and that women and children have lost more than others.

Curzio Malaparte seems to have been an early observer of American indignation at the inadequate (or perhaps inappropriately abject) gratitude of liberated peoples. The point certainly isn't that Italians were better off under fascism, but it does have something to do with the rather heedless manner in which Americans rush about liberating people and expect them to begin living happily ever after immediately. An aristocrat jokes that the Americans are the first occupiers of Sicily who took the trouble to knock before coming in; Gen. Cork jokes back, noting the damage from bombings to her ceiling, that perhaps we knocked a little too hard. If the Americans of La Pelle often seem obtuse, I don't think that makes the picture anti-American. The historical coincidence of an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius -- the mass evacuation under a fiery shower is one of Cavani's best sequences -- suggests analogically that the American occupation is a similar force of nature, no more comprehending of the damage it does and no more malicious at heart. The occupation seems like a supreme subject for Italian cinema, so it's surprising that it fell to Cavani, whose main credential was that triumph of arthouse Nazisploitation, The Night Porter, to put The Skin on film. She's not enough of a stylist, nor enough of a comedian, to make the film fully successful, but it has plenty of memorable moments and has clear historic interest as one of the last gasps of Italian cinema's aspiration to world leadership, and one that seems like a summation of everything that cinema had to offer in its golden age.

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