Thursday, March 3, 2011

CRY OF A PROSTITUTE (Quelli che contano, 1974)

As censorship receded around the world in the 1960s and afterward, the U.S. embraced sex while Europe embraced violence. This is a very broad generalization, but I'm still grappling with the importance of cruelty and brutality in European popular cinema and some of its art cinema. In many cases, it seems to be a kind of reality principle, a sign that the filmmaker is trying to tell it like it is. It's a conscious rejection of romantic idealism and enforced optimism, a crude antithesis to the romanticism often expressed in the films' own lush and soaring scores. What were audiences supposed to make of it all? We assume that they got a kick out of the violence, but how did they react to the worldview, the cynicism and pessimism that so often prevail in these films? In historical films, I've described it as an acknowledgment of the injustice that prevailed in the past, whether in medieval Europe or in the savage border country of spaghetti westerns. What about cruel pictures set in the present day? Did audiences accept those as truth-telling exposes of modern injustice? Were these films consciousness-raising exercises or did they contribute to conservative complacency? Did they tell viewers that there was no hope in a violent world, or did they suggest that violence was the only answer?

Watching Andrea Bianchi's brutal Mafia potboiler, whose Italian title translates literally as "Those Who Matter," I couldn't help wondering whether people were meant to enjoy the experience, or whether they were supposed to be satisfied by recognizing some sort of violent truth in the derivative story. In fact, the story is derivative of spaghetti westerns. It has the Fistful of Dollars/Yojimbo/Red Harvest element of a protagonist playing two factions off each other. It also has the Once Upon a Time in the West element of a killer who performs his own theme music with mysterious significance. Instead of playing a harmonica, Tony Aniante (Henry Silva) whistles an enigmatic, strangely amplified tune while enemies stand about stupefied or confused until Tony steps out of cover and shoots them. He's an American gangster sent to Sicily to settle a local squabble over heroin, some of which was being smuggled inside of "cut up babies." He also has an agenda of his own, hinted at by the whistling and the occasional black and white flashback to some scene of uncertain relevance. Tony is not quite a spaghetti western bounty hunter transplanted to Seventies Sicily, however.

Silva gives a laconic, tightly wound, uncomfortable performance. He talks (dubbing his own voice) in a stilted way, as if keeping in sync with the rest of the cast (dubbed with other people's voices). His delivery gives lines like, "I am a damn good driver!" an unintentional mock gravitas. Silva seems to have worn the same yellow shirt through the entire shoot in steamy Sicily, often under a jacket, and you can believe that every sweat stain is real. There's something robotic about Tony Aniante, but you eventually realize that this is self-restraint, that he's keeping something essential about himself in check -- and not just his secret revenge agenda.

Margie (Barbara Bouchet) hints ever so slightly that she's attracted to Tony

Margie (Barbara Bouchet), the trophy wife of one of the rival gangsters, challenges Tony's resolve with some of the least subtle come-ons in movies. She comes across like a character out of a soft-core sex comedy, pouring milk over herself and sucking a banana to get Tony's attention. She gets it, in spades. Tony likes it rough, it turns out, if he can even be said to like it. It's enough to drive her wild the first time, and he can't get her out of his mind. He daydreams of her while her husband plots strategy with him, but he clearly resents his own desire. Maybe it just gets in the way of his job and his secret agenda.

He warns her to stay out of his way but she won't listen. The next time he gives her all he's got. He beats the crap out of her with his fists and both ends of his belt before raping her in a barn. Not long afterward, she kills herself. Notified of this in the middle of a final showdown with her husband, Tony says, "I'm sorry," but by then his own problems have escalated and he's a bloody, sweat-stained mess in his own right. Even if he gets out of this predicament, he still has his own business to settle, and that flashback to explain....

But how can you root for Tony after what he does to Margie? Is it a mitigating circumstance that he has a murder in his past to avenge? I doubt it. But I also question whether Italian (or later American) audiences were meant to cheer as Tony destroys Margie. The rape scene strikes me as an instance of cruelty as a reality principle, a refusal to turn this tough crime picture into a romance. We're supposed to be satisfied to have it confirmed that Tony is a vicious beast, and that such men tend to prevail, however implausibly in plot terms. Tony's behavior probably serves to confirm a worldview viewers already had. They could tell themselves that this film didn't insult their intelligence -- though their sense of cinematic taste might still be a casualty.

It's hard to judge Quelli che contano as a cinematic experience on the evidence of the Substance DVD. This pan-and-scan edition of the American dub looks like a VHS tape that's been dragged out of the earth. The picture quality is on the level of a Mill Creek DVD -- though many Mill Creek editions actually look better. Somehow, the presentation seems appropriate to the content. Cry of a Prostitute is an experience that should be as little aestheticized as possible. Whatever virtues it has shouldn't be dependent on lighting, vivid color or balanced compositions. At its worst, morally speaking, it's riveting in an appalling way, as if part of the point is the way the film dares you to watch. That's in keeping with Italian exploitation, if not with the wider European cinema of cruelty. Whether you care to watch depends on whether you think the truths of these films are worth telling, or whether they're the truth.


venoms5 said...

You def need to see the uncut version, Sam. This is one of my favorite Italian crime films.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, I found the original credits sequence with the Italian titles in the correct aspect ratio on YouTube. It gives the movie some of that romantic sweep that the story subsequently and deliberately undermines. I should clarify that the film got better for me as it got away from the borrowed spaghetti cliches and developed its warts-&-all portrait of Tony Aniante. Its apparent mean-spiritedness may make it tougher for others to tolerate, however.

venoms5 said...

I got the cut English version and the fan subbed/dubbed one as well as the Italian disc it was sourced from. A decapitation and a head bisection are some of the missing bits as well as some additional exposition that helps the plot along.

It's a shame most of the Italian discs lack English options of any kind.