Costuming & Italian Horror: Opera (1987)

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Frequently heralded as Argento's last great giallo and the swan song of the genre at large, 1987's Opera is one of the director's most ostentatious works; perfectly encapsulating the grandiose operatic excesses of Argento's cinematic career in a visually sumptuous and gloriously meta examination of the relationship between creator, performer and audience. Opera showcases the director's uninhibited trademark visual style and is a film imbued with a sense of creativity and dramatic flair that displays Argento at the peak of his mastery. What perhaps makes Argento such a proficient storyteller is his ability to create layered visual narratives that relay the outlandish themes and concepts at the heart of his films in such an aesthetically pleasing and visually cohesive manner. In Opera, Argento conveys thematic ideas pertaining to Shakespearean tragedy, identity, environment and sexual dysfunction through the film's visual storytelling extending through to production and costume design. In order to examine some of the aforementioned themes and characterisation in Opera, I will examine how costume design denotes key themes in Argento's text and conveys the facets of the character of Betty. 


Before discussing Opera’s costuming, it’s worth examining Argento’s foray into the fashion world prior to directing his 1987 giallo. Fashion and contemporary design have always been an integral visual component of Argento’s oeuvre, from the daring Luca Sabatelli designed costumes worn by Catherine Spaak in Cat o’Nine Tails (1971) to the bleached and pastel costuming of Piero Cicoletti and Franco Tomei in Tenebrae (1982). In the examination of costuming in Argento’s films, one of the most interesting case studies is his 1985 supernatural horror, Phenomena which featured designs by Giorgio Armani - somewhat of a rarity for the Italian designer (you can read my thoughts on the subject in my booklet essay for the Arrow 4K release of the film). Argento’s collaboration with Armani yielded impressive results with the sharp tailoring and cool colour palette of Armani’s mid 1980s designs perfectly complimenting the film’s mysteriously cold yet magical feel. Whilst Armani and Argento did not collaborate again post Phenomena, it was the Italian designer who suggested Spanish actress Cristina Marsillach for the leading role in Opera when Argento voiced his desire to cast an actress he had no previous experience of working with.



In 1986, Argento forged another connection with the world of Italian high fashion, directing a fashion show for Italian fashion brand Trussardi (you can read about the show in greater detail here). The runway show was for Trussardi's new fashion line, Trussardi Action - a line focused on emerging new fashion trends such as sportswear, utilitarian and unisex looks for the young adult market. The Trussardi show is an interesting artefact for fans of Argento featuring motifs of the director’s oeuvre staged in the confines of a fashion show. The Autumn/Winter 1986-1987 show also gives an insight into youth fashion trends of the era; some of which are replicated in Opera’s costuming. Whilst Opera was largely inspired by Argento's failed attempt at staging his own characteristically violent production of Rigoletto, it’s likely that the Trussardi fashion show also played a role in influencing his subsequent cinematic work. Opera details the behind the scenes processes of a live production and the subsequent trials and tribulations involved for a creative director - a notion familiar to a director with recent experience of conceiving and directing a live fashion show of his own.


As a production, Opera was marred with difficulties, supposedly befalling to the theatrical curse of “The Scottish Play”. Argento suffered personal tragedy with the loss of his father and relationship difficulties with long term partner and collaborator Dario Nicolodi. The production itself was disrupted by a series of unfortunate events including the death of a minor actor and a car accident involving Ian Charleston who later found out he was HIV positive (Opera was his last cinematic role before his untimely death). Additionally, substantial script changes had to be made when Vanessa Redgrave pulled out of the production at the last minute due to salary negotiations falling though. Yet despite the numerous issues that befell Opera’s production, Argento persevered with the film and cites it as one of his personal favourites. 

For Opera, Argento enlisted a crew made up of familiar names such as editor Franco Fraticelli and  production designer Davide Bassan alongside new collaborators such as British cinematographer, Ronnie Taylor. For Opera’s costume design, Argento collaborated with Italian costume designer Lia Francesca Morandini with costumes provided by Costumi D’arte, Sartoria Ferroni, Basile and children’s fashion label, Magil. Morandini would later collaborate with Argento once again on his 1996 psychological thriller, The Stendhal Syndrome (my piece on the film’s costuming can be found here). There are similarities between the two films in regards to their costuming with the fashions worn by protagonists Betty (Cristina Marsillach) and Anna (Asia Argento) comprising of predominantly casual looks presented in a non form fitting sexualised fashion. In Opera, Marsillach reportedly did not want to be dressed in a sexualised fashion - a request that likely, and unfortunately, added to her reputation as a diva on set. There’s been much discussion surrounding the tempestuous relationship between Argento and Marsillach. The relationship between the two was reportedly so fraught that they couldn’t communicate with one another directly during filming. Whether it was a result of Marsillach’s request or the production’s own direction, Marsillach’s costuming outside of her role as Lady Macbeth, positions her as somewhat childlike and reflective of the teenager she is. As a character, Betty feels somewhat less refined than Argento's previous teenage protagonist, Jennifer Corvino of Phenomena (1985) - a character who is remarkably more mature than her childish peers who worship teenage idols and eat baby food from jars. Whilst Corvino is positioned as a young woman beyond her years, in part due to her unconventional upbringing, Betty seems far more fragile as a character and possesses a sort of childhood innocence which is effectively challenged throughout the film. In Opera, by undertaking the role of Lady Macbeth, Betty is challenged as both a performer and a person. Betty’s relationship with Inspector Santini and his perception of who she is forces her to examine her identity as well as her connection to her opera singer mother - a source of conflict and confusion. Whilst, it’s perhaps not conveyed overtly in the film’s script, Betty as a leading lady is seemingly on a journey of self realisation which is perhaps why she lacks the gumption and pluckiness of some of Argento's previous leading ladies and again, why she attracts criticism in some circles. In Opera the 'who' element of the central mystery is perhaps less important than in Argento's other gialli with the 'why' being far more crucial relating to who Betty is, how she relates to her mother and her past and uncertain future. Throughout the film, costuming helps visually signify aspects of Betty's character that are perhaps not so apparent in the film's storytelling, marking her differences from those around her and the changes she goes through.



When we are first introduced to Betty’s character, her youthful innocence and childlike naivety is immediately apparent. In Betty’s introductory scene, she is shown lying on her bed listening to music before taking a phone call. In these initial moments we see that Betty resides in a grandiose apartment yet despite the opulent setting, her bedroom is littered with teenage and childlike items; a fairy ornament, a cup with drawings, a pink stuffed rabbit and a collection of colourful VHS tapes. Betty, who casually lounges on her bed appears to be your typical teenager but what sets Betty apart from her peers is the music that plays through her modern eighties hi-fi, not pop but opera. Betty is different from her peer group, possessing a talent that has presumably dominated her young life and predestined her future. Betty's profession as an opera singer seems at odds with her youth and this dichotomy in her character casts doubts over her ability to succeed in the coveted role of Lady Macbeth that circumstances catapult her into. We the audience, and the opera’s production team, question the ability of this young teenager who appears lacking in the gravitas and age required for such a monumental role.


Throughout the film Betty is portrayed in a somewhat infantilised manner, or at least her youthful, and at times, naive nature is emphasised in certain scenes. This is arguably to highlight the vast difference between Betty the teenager and Mara the middle aged opera star who she replaces. Betty’s youth is viewed negatively, casting doubts over her proficiency as a singer and ability to perform the coveted part of Lady Macbeth. Betty’s youthful appearance also highlights the differences between Betty and women such as her mother and her agent, Mira. The contrast between the various women in Opera is important as it illustrates the initial youthful naivety of Betty and how this aspect of her character is repeatedly challenged throughout the film. Opera’s cast largely comprises of capable women in various professional roles; Betty’s mother and Mara are commanding opera singers, Giulia is the opera's wardrobe supervisor, Maria is the assistant director, Marion is a successful model and Mira is a powerful agent. Betty enters into a world filled with powerful and dominant women already established in their careers whereas Betty is still unsure of who she is and her capability when it comes to the daunting role ahead of her. It’s interesting to note that many of the women in Opera have almost interchangeable names; Mira, Mara, Maria and Marion. This once again sets Betty apart from the others highlighting that she is different to the women who surround her - a realisation she herself comes to at the film’s end. If anything, the female who Betty seems to relate to the most and finds a kindred spirit in is Alma, the young girl who lives in the apartment next door. Alma, whose mother is shown to be callous and uncaring, feels like a representation of a past version of Betty and a reflection of her past relationship with her mother. Undoubtedly in Betty’s youth, her mother too, decided to forgo her motherly responsibilities in favour of her pursuing her own desires.


Much of Betty’s internal struggle, and the subject of the killer’s fascination, comes from Betty’s connection to her mother and the similarities and differences between the two women. Throughout Opera Betty will battle with comparisons to her mother and will question if she too, embodies her mother’s cruelty and depraved peccadillos or if she will forge a different path of her own volition. The complexities of Betty’s mother’s life and her relationship with her daughter are largely unknown and our experience of her character is contained to a few flashback scenes and Inspector Santini’s reflections. In the flashback scenes, we see Betty’s mother as an unassuming woman dressed in a beige cardigan and black dress. Her daughter, who is watching nearby, also wears a beige cardigan and has her hair styled in a similar fashion to her mother forging a connection between the two, showing that Betty is created in her mother’s image - a notion more overtly shown in Betty’s profession. Due to the absence of Betty’s mother, it is Mira, Betty’s agent, who takes on the substitute maternal role in Betty’s life acting in a career advisory role but also in providing emotional support and guidance to the young opera protege. Argento's films typically lack healthy maternal relationships so, despite being somewhat of an unconventional maternal dynamic, Opera still feels like a marked change for the director with the tender relationship between Mira and Betty reminiscent of the kinship between Professor McGregor and Jennifer Corvino in Phenomena or Cookie and Lori in Cat o’Nine Tails. Argento typically favours paternal relationships with mothers often typifying the monstrous female archetype; shown to either lack or possess a twisted interpretation of the empathetic nurturing qualities associated with motherhood e.g. Deep Red (1975), The Three Mothers Trilogy (1977, 1980, 2007) and Phenomena. In Opera, Mira will ultimately sacrifice herself to protect Betty in an act of motherly love. Whilst Mira and Betty’s relationship is portrayed as warm and nurturing, Betty's mother is painted as a callous women who placed her sexual gratification above her daughter and partner's needs. Mira is the counterpoint to Betty's mother, highlighting the warped unfeeling nature of Betty's mother’s actions. Betty and Mira’s mother daughter style relationship is conveyed through the aforementioned examples but it is also illustrated through the costuming of both women, asserting the generational divide between them and emphasising the childlike nature of Betty compared to her refined mentor.


When Mira first appears in Betty's bedroom at the film’s beginning, the contrast between the two women is stark. Mira towers over Betty creating a visual dynamic of mother and daughter. Betty is dressed in a baby pink top with pink satin lining - evoking the look of a traditional baby blanket - which she wears with a pair of chinos, her hair messy in an unstyled bob. Betty’s overall look is unpolished and lacking in refinement but is perhaps very much the picture of a teenage girl. As she talks to Mira, in tears, she clings to her pink stuffed rabbit - the image of an upset child who needs to be comforted by her mother. In contrast, Mira is dressed in a beautiful black suit with embroidery and a fur stole very much signifying her position as an accomplished woman and refined theatrical agent. Mira's initial costume is somewhat reminiscent of the costume Betty will later wear as Lady Macbeth when she takes to the stage for the first time. The black fur and jewelled brooch of Mira's look drawing comparison with Betty's bejewelled headpiece and feather adorned cape. This could perhaps be viewed as a connection between the two women and the strength and power Betty obtains by taking on the role of Lady Macbeth transitioning the young teenager into womanhood. 


Betty’s transformation from shy, insecure teenage girl into the domineering and forceful Lady Macbeth of Verdi’s opera is accentuated by the elaborate costumes she wears for her debut performance. One of the most fascinating aspects of Opera is horror director, Marco's staging of the classic Verdi opera, Macbeth. In the reviews of his production, Marco is criticised for staging the opera like a music video and this is certainly evident in the elaborate production design in which the stage has been transformed into a post apocalyptic wasteland featuring the charred wreckage of a military plane, a foreboding back projected skull and a large digital clock that hangs ominously above proceedings. As Lady Macbeth, Betty stands out from her surroundings and the other players who are dressed in military uniforms juxtaposed with sunglasses. The transformation of Betty's character from the previous scene is significant - the meek young woman from before has transformed into a powerful opera diva, commanding the stage and stealing the show much to the chagrin of her detractors. Betty's costuming reflects the anachronistic post apocalyptic look of the opera and her outfit is an amalgamation of 1980s jewelled excess and a throughly eighties vision of a dystopian future. The jewels stitched onto her costume and in her statement jewelled headpiece glint in the light like the repeated shot throughout the film of the eye of the raven. In a later scene, we see Giulia repair the costume cutting the jewels from the fabric in a manner similar to the way in which Santini tears through the ravens of the opera house; the billowing fabric in the background moving like the feathers ripped from the creatures. The feathered black cape of Betty’s Lady Macbeth outfit, which reappears in her second costume, mimics the appearance of the ravens who are an integral part of Marco’s staging of Verdi’s opera. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the raven is a bird of ill omen signifying King Duncan’s impending death. Argento’s staging of Macbeth in Opera emphasises the significance of the raven to the production’s narrative by incorporating an unkindness of ravens (technically a murder of crows) into the stage’s production design. The raven provides Opera with much of the film’s distinctive imagery and will play a crucial role in the unmasking of the killer; utilising the bird’s ability to recognise those who have wronged them to bring about Santini’s downfall. Lady Macbeth’s raven like cape adorned with feather detailing invites comparison between her character and the raven positioning them as kindred spirits, intrinsically linked. In Betty's first performance as Lady Macbeth, she outstretches her arms as ravens fly around her and perch on her arms, once again cementing this idea. In Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth speaks the line “The raven himself is hoarse” in reference to Duncan’s imminent death creating a connection between her character and the raven as a harbinger of the bloodshed and darkness to come. Betty, who wears a cloak that imitates the feathers of the ravens that surround her, will act as an ill omen for Santini, ultimately bringing about his downfall in a similar manner to how the ravens enact their own revenge.


What's interesting about Betty's portrayal of Lady Macbeth is how she inadvertently takes on the attributes of her mother in assuming such a notoriously ruthless role. Lady Macbeth, like Betty's mother, is a woman who seemingly lacks humanity, a woman who lacks the caring and compassionate qualities associated with womanhood. Betty's mother's relationship with Inspector Alan Santini also somewhat mirrors Lady Macbeth's relationship with Macbeth as both women cruelly manipulate their lovers into carrying out violent acts. Inspector Santini, despite being portrayed as the villain of the film, is essentially a puppet for Betty's mother and his inability to consummate his relationship with Betty's mother renders his character impotent tying into themes of frigidity, chastity and impotency in the film - particularly in regards to Betty's character. Betty's mother's manipulation drives Santini to carry out depraved acts on her behalf and his character becomes unable to associate love with anything other than brutality when he meets Betty. Santini is desperate to relive the relationship he had with Betty's mother, viewing Betty as a chance to finally receive the sexual and romantic validation he so desperately sought but was unable to fully obtain from her mother.


Santini's first encounter with Betty takes place during her debut performance as Lady Macbeth and the way in which Santini first sees Betty is perhaps key to how he relates to her character for the duration of the film. Santini does not see Betty, the childlike and fragile young woman she initially appears as to us, the audience, but as a powerful dominant young woman who commands the stage in her role as the strong yet heartless Lady Macbeth. In many ways, this warps Santini's perception of Betty as he views her as the character she is playing rather than the woman she is, perhaps due to his desperation to view Betty as a substitute for her deceased mother. When he first her on stage from afar he remarks “You’ve finally returned” believing that Betty is her mother. His failure to see Betty for the person she is and instead a doppelgänger of her opera singer mother fuels his desire to recreate his past relationship despite the differences between the two women. Santini views Betty as a chance to do-over his past failed relationship and to win the affections of the object of his desire, something he was unable to do with her mother as she became greedy and had to be destroyed. Due to his inability to view Betty as a separate entity from her mother, Alan Santini embarks on a killing spree in a desperate attempt to impress Betty unaware that she does not share her mother's predilections. When Santini kidnaps Betty and forces her to watch him murder her love interest, Santini is clearly carrying out the same sadomasochistic behaviours he enacted with her mother seemingly oblivious to Betty's revulsion. Santini feels Betty and remarks that “It’s not true you’re frigid. You’re a bitch in heat” casting aspersions over her Betty’s true nature.



Costuming inevitably ties into these ideas and Betty's initial Lady Macbeth costume is paramount in forging this connection between Betty and her mother. The elaborate costume made up of golden chains, straps and an armorial bodice feels S&M influenced which draws comparison to Betty's mother who liked to be tied up and to engage in the extremities of sadomasochistic behaviour with her lover. Betty’s costume also possesses a regal quality in which she is positioned as a queen of sorts; adorned in jewels, she is a woman to be worshipped and obeyed. In Santini's initial interaction with Betty he is meek and timid, like a star struck fan in awe of the object of his affections. This is somewhat ironic as Betty herself is someone who inhibits these qualities when we are first introduced to her character. Santini acts in a somewhat submissive manner which juxtaposes against his dominance in the capture scenes where he will rejig the power balance between the two as part of his sexual fantasies and desperation to have a woman who submits fully to his love. Betty, the performer is powerful but Betty the teenager is weak and afraid - in order to overcome Santini, she must harness the power that comes from assuming the role of Lady Macbeth without relinquishing her humanity. 


The second Lady Macbeth costume worn by Betty is less elaborate than the first but still embodies the regal and ostentatious feel present in her initial stage look. The dress features pearl beading on the bodice and neckline and is accessorised with matching pearl adornments including an elaborate pearl necklace and a belt and hair tie. The most striking part of the costume is a pair of thick gold arm cuffs that coil around Betty's arms. The serpentine arm cuffs feel like a pertinent addition to a costume designed for Lady Macbeth. In Macbeth, the snake is used as a metaphor for wickedness and treachery. Lady Macbeth speaks the line “… look like t’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” meaning her husband must be duplicitous; appearing perfectly innocent and unassuming in order to enact his treacherous plan to kill Duncan so he can assume the throne. Betty and Marco’s plan to unmask the killer in the climatic scenes of the opera mirrors the plans of the Macbeths; they must maintain the illusion of the performance in order to put their plan into motion. In the finale of Opera, Betty must once again deceive Santini in an act of self preservation. Upon the violent murder of Marco, Betty tricks Santini into believing she is just like her mother, sharing in her perverse peccadilloes. By appearing to succumb to Santini’s love and deviant lifestyle, mirroring her own mother’s path, Betty is able to finally thwart Santini double crossing him in the film’s final scenes. Despite Betty’s naive and fragile beginnings, by Opera’s end she grows into a powerful woman able to successfully manipulate and betray Santini. Betty is triumphant in overcoming her childlike fears, transitioning into womanhood and forging a different path to her mother, one of purity - “Because I am different. I don’t even vaguely resemble others, any of them.” 


When the police rush to Betty’s aid in the film’s climatic scenes, we see her delicately handle a flower whilst wearing her signature piece of jewellery; a gold snake ring. This alludes to Lady Macbeth’s quote “… look like t’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” exposing the duality of Betty’s character - she is innocent and fragile yet possesses a deceptive quality which allows her to ultimately persevere. When opera singer, Mara, snidely sends Betty a congratulatory gift of perfume she writes "Good luck, little snake” - another allusion to Betty’s affinity with the serpent. Opera’s final scenes concern the choice that Betty will make and the revelation of her true character. Will Betty denounce her mother’s perverse ways or will she reveal an appetite for sexual bloodlust proving Santini’s assertions about her sexual excitement in Stefano’s murder scene to be correct? Opera explores thematic ideas pertaining to nurture versus nature culminating in the film’s finale that takes place outside of the confines of the opera house and in the open landscape of the natural world. Betty rejects the artifice of the modern world and finds solace in the nature around her. Once again she finds affinity with animals, in this case, the lizard. Betty’s snake ring connects her to the natural world she longs for whilst symbolising the connection forged with the character who has become the making of her.

 

The more ostentatious aspects of Opera’s costume design feature the aforementioned distinctive golden jewellery and adornments that characterise Lady Macbeth’s costuming as well as Betty and Mira’s individual pieces. The jewellery on display throughout the film was designed by theatre actor turned jeweller, Nino Lembo, a designer who supplied jewellery for various films such as Danger Diabolik (Bava, 1968), The Girl With a Pistol (Monicelli, 1968), The Night Porter (Cavani, 1974) and Nosferatu in Venice (Caminito, 1988). Lembo's jewellery often possessed a sense of fun and whimsy, created to invite conservation. In Opera, his designs vary from classical pieces to distinctive character pieces such as Betty’s snake ring. Like many other gialli, a piece of jewellery is also pertinent to film’s plot with Santini’s gold inscribed bracelet acting as a clue to the true identity of the killer and his motivations. Another piece of jewellery worth commenting on is the oversized gold pinwheel brooch that Betty wears on her dark blue blazer - a whimsical piece that denotes the youthfulness of her character. The pinwheel, a simple children’s toy, fits in with the stuffed teddies and bird mobile of Betty’s dressing room as visual signifiers of her initial childlike demeanour.



Despite her expensive and distinctive gold jewellery, outside of her operatic performances, Betty is dressed in a fairly casual and typically teenage like manner. Her wardrobe consists of slouchy oversized garments and looks that could be considered unisex fitting in with some of the more androgynous styles of the time, as displayed in the Trussardi Action show. Marco’s wardrobe is also reflective of some of the trends present in the Trussardi show. His character’s costumes are made up of practical and popular items of the time such as chinos, bomber jackets and fisherman jumpers. Interestingly, Betty and Marco’s wardrobes are at times almost interchangeable which again showcases the more unisex trends of the period. Both characters wear practical style clothing in muted colour palettes. In one scene, the two stand side by side both dressed in chinos and t-shirts appearing as a mirror image of one another. In Opera, there is a sense of glamour but one that’s framed as artificial - part of a stage production. Outside of the opera, characters retain a sense of normalcy and practicality and are far removed from the glamour of the decadent 1980s. This contrast is important as it reinforces the idea of Betty's world being somewhat of an illusion, created via smoke and mirrors. In comparison, Inspector Santini dresses in sharp tailored suits accessories with expensive spectacles. Santini presents as a desirable, professional man - a smokescreen for his barbaric identity. Morandini’s costuming for Santini and the character of Alan Santini himself, feels like a precursor for Alfredo Grossi in Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome - both men masquerade under a veneer of respectability in order to carry out their perverse crimes. 



Like Betty, the opera’s production team are mostly dressed in practical, casual clothing that marks them as behind the scenes players rather than those on the centre stage like the performers in their military clothing and sunglasses. However, costume designer Giulia (played by Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni of Demons 2 infamy) has some of the more interesting outfits of the opera’s production staff. As a costumier working in a creative field, she has an artful flair with her character embodying a sort of eclectic, late 1980s Vivienne Westwood aesthetic with her safety pin brooch, pixie boots, layered necklaces and ethnic inspired accessories. Marco’s partner, the fashion model Marion, is another character who dresses in a decidedly more bold, scene stealing fashion that might be viewed as more “eighties” in style. Throughout the course of the film, Marion dons a pastel blue jumpsuit, a high shine black evening dress with diamanté neck detail, a taffeta ruffled cocktail dress and an oversized Zang Tumb Tumb graphic t-shirt representative of the big logos and graphics that were popular during the period as seen in the Trussardi Action line and Italian fashion brand Moschino’s in your face fashion. Antonella Vitale, who plays Marion, will wear the Zang Tumb Tumb t-shirt once again in the Buona fine e miglior principio episode of the Argento produced miniseries for Giallo Turno di Notte later that year. The fashions for the show were supplied by Italian fashion magazine Moda.


The age old tradition of dressing up for the Opera is naturally on display in the film’s opera scene. The opera gives us a chance to see the film’s characters in all their refinery, displaying some of the more glamorous styles of the era. The aforementioned fashion model, Marion, wears a high shine evening dress whereas Alma’s mother, who is evidently more preoccupied with entertaining gentleman callers than supervising her daughter, wears a very 1980s tailored black suit with matching pillbox hat and white blouse with oversized taffeta collar. She is accompanied by her daughter, Alma, who wears a design by children’s brand Magil - a tartan peter pan collared dress which creates a picture of childhood innocence. The grandiosity of Parma opera house and the ostentatious and expensive fashions worn by the patrons that traverse its hallowed halls is undercut by the savagery of the events that take place there. The pomp and ceremony of the opera dissipates as Betty and Marco’s plan sets into motion. Patrons are crushed by one another as they flee to escape the carnage. As a raven gobbles Santini’s eye, pearls and accessories lie broken on the floor - the grandeur of the evening decimated by the primal nature of both Santini and the ravens’ actions.


As a film predominantly taking place in an opera house, Opera is naturally indebted to the Phantom of the Opera and its various iterations but there’s also clear references to other forms of cinema including Argento’s past oeuvre and the giallo in generalised terms. Perhaps less obviously, the film’s ending feels like a cinematic reference to Robert Wise's 1965 musical, The Sound of Music. The final scenes of both films take place in the Swiss alps against a backdrop of snow capped mountains, crisp blue skies and lush green grass. Argento's sinister take on the beloved musical turns the beautiful Swiss countryside into a place of murder and mayhem but ironically also a place of solace and realisation for protagonist Betty. The audience’s doubt over Betty’s true character accentuated by the blood stain on her blouse denoting the soiling of purity. Beyond the environmental similarities, the character of Betty seems to mimic Julie Andrews’ Maria  Von Trapp running through lush grass wearing a flowing cyan blue ankle length skirt and a white blouse that echoes the costuming of Andrews in the 1965 musical. Of course, Betty the slovenly teenager compliments her Maria Von Trapp style outfit with her signature pair of Stan Smith trainers putting a modern twist on a classic and showcasing that despite her personal growth, she has not completely lost sight of who she is. 


Despite assertions of weak characterisation, Dario Argento’s Opera follows on from thematic ideas in his previous cinematic offering, Phenomena, acting as an examination of a coming of age story framed in the grandiose world of the Italian opera. Costuming in Opera is an imperative part of the film’s visual storytelling conveying pertinent information about Betty’s character and her transformation from frightened child to self assured woman. Opera’s costuming reveals the different facets of Betty’s character and acts as an exploration of her identity in relation to her role as her mother’s daughter as well as her fictional role as Lady Macbeth in Marco’s staging of the Verdi opera. Like with Argento’s other cinematic works, Opera utilises costuming alongside the director’s trademark visual style and distinctive thematic concepts in order to tell a story of self discovery realised through the prism of taking on the identity of another to ascertain who one really is. It is only when Betty understands herself that she can reject the horror of the world she once knew in order to find solace in the purity of nature.


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Gli incubi di Dario Argento (1987)

Monday, 21 September 2020

Gli incubi di Dario Argento (The Nightmares of Dario Argento) was a segment featured on the Italian television series Giallo on Rai 2 which was broadcast from October 1987 to January 1988. The series, which naturally focussed on murder mysteries, was conceived and hosted by Italian television host Enzo Tortora and was a mixture of current affairs and fictional content. Tortora (renowned for his unjust incarceration in a trial involving the Camorra) handled the current affairs segment of the show, which included segments on unsolved crimes and historical accounts of murder cases, whilst Argento was in charge of the show’s more creative, fictional aspects. As part of Argento's creative contribution to Giallo, he directed a series of vignettes which aimed to capture the nightmarish surreality of one's dreams born from his fertile imagination.

Argento often cites his childhood nightmares as a major influence in his creative endeavours and of great importance to the horror genre at large. Gli incubi di Dario Argento was conceived by the director to explore this concept of the nightmare within the framework of a 3 minute short. The format lent itself  to the concept of capsulising a nightmare; allowing Argento to tell a short horror story in a few scenes representing the fragmented surreal nature of a dream. The shorts were often effects laden and a chance for Argento to experiment with visual effects and concepts without the constraints of a feature length film.



Gli incubi di Dario Argento consisted of nine 3 minute episodes directed, introduced and sometimes narrated by Dario Argento. Shot on 35mm, the 3 minute segments told a short horror story accompanied by music from Argento’s films alongside contemporary pop songs. Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, who starred in Dario Argento’s Opera (1987) the same year, featured in several of the introductory segments and could often be seen mugging behind Argento as he introduced his short in front of a bank of television screens from inside the Giallo studio in Milan. 


As a director, Argento often courted controversy and Gli incubi was no exception. The series attracted the ire of concerned and horrified television viewers who objected to the violent content of Argento's vignettes. One short in particular, Punk Nostalgia, was met with much indignation due to the graphic nature of the violence depicted. As a result, subsequent episodes of Gli incubi were reined in with Rai requesting that Argento moderated the violent content of his vignettes resulting in the latter half of the series feeling less ostentatiously gruesome than the first. 


After Gli incubi di Dario Argento completed its run, Argento produced another series of episodic horror for Giallo with Turno di notte - a successor to Gli incubi di Dario Argento. The series conceived by Argento, compromised of fifteen episodes directed by frequent Argento collaborators Lamberto Bava and Luigi Cozzi with Bava directing the first six episodes and Cozzi directing the remaining nine. The series revolved around the mysterious goings on at a Roman taxi company firm at night and incorporated many key motifs present in Argento's work and Italian horror and thriller cinema at large. 


Argento's final contribution to the Giallo series was a series of films surrounding the making of key scenes in Argento's oeuvre. The films, carried out in a rudimentary documentary styled fashion, explained how various scenes and effects in his films were constructed. For example, the crane shot in Opera, the transformation scene in Demons 2 and sound effects and design in Suspiria and Opera. Behind the scenes footage of how the vignettes for Gli incubi were made also featured. Some of the footage shot for the feature later appeared in Luigi Cozzi's Dario Argento: Master of Horror feature length documentary in 1991.  


Whilst, the vignettes are naturally brief and without much to comment on in a detailed manner, I'll outline the individual episodes for those interested in a quick summation and the odd bit of commentary.




Episode 1: La finestra sul cortile (Rear Window)


Gli incubi di Dario Argento's opening vignette is a homage to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a fitting choice for a director like Argento who frequently courted comparison to the master of suspense throughout his career. In La finestra sul cortile, a young man named Massimo watches Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window one evening. As he watches the film, Massimo ponders the rear window in his own flat and inspired by the film, grabs a pair of binoculars and looks out onto his courtyard, witnessing a fight taking place between a couple. The man stabs the woman which prompts Massimo to act, grabbing a rope and knife abseiling down to the courtyard. However, the rope snaps and Massimo lands on his knife. Incapacitated, a man with a stocking over his head brandishing a knife gleefully laughs at Massimo as he wrestles with a series of snakes he's unwittingly disturbed. The police arrive assuming that Massimo is the culprit and as he's taken away he hysterically laughs at how events have unfolded. 


Perhaps hindered by the restricted running length, La finestra sul cortile feels like a window into a  longer climatic sequence. Competently executed, the short succinctly captures a nightmarish atmosphere characterised by a series of bizarre misfortunes and the bleed of fiction into reality. Simon Boswell's Sleepwalking from Phenomena (1985) plays in the background which heightens the mood of the piece.



Episode 2: Riti notturni (Night Rituals)


A young couple employ a Haitian maid to clean their home unaware that she is part of a cannibalistic voodoo sect. The maid conducts voodoo rituals in the flat in the couple's absence and on their return, the home is infiltrated by members of the sect who slaughter and devour the couple before filling the fridge with their remaining body parts. In Art of Darkness, Roberto Curti suggests the idea for Riti notturni was born from a film concept in development by Argento about urban voodoo.


Episode 3: Il verme (The Worm)


Arguably, the most successful episode of Gli incubi, Il verme is the story of a young woman named Bettina who sits alone one night with her pet cat reading an issue of Dylan Dog. A report on the television about an infectious disease carried by cats that causes worms to propagate in the body prompts Bettina to inspect her own, terrified that she's harbouring the disease. There’s an eroticised feel to the vignette with Bettina stripping down to her underwear in front of a mirror examining her nubile body with a magnifying glass. This eroticised scene promptly shifts to one of horror as Bettina discovers a worm burying itself into her eyeball. Suitably horrified, she attempts to remove the parasitic worm before plunging a knife into her eyeball. 


The special effects in Il verme are suitably crawling with some wonderfully orchestrated, wince inducing eye effects that immediately draw comparison to the work of Lucio Fulci. There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing in the vignette as Bettina casts her magnifying glass over a snake tattoo on her body that resembles the wriggling form of a worm. It's a simple but atmospheric short cast in gorgeous bluish tones and strikingly lit encapsulating a nightmarish, unsettling feel.



Episode 4: Amare e morire (Loving and Dying)


Amare e morire is a short inspired by rape revenge cinema. A hooded man breaks into a woman named Gloria's home and beats and rapes her. After the ordeal, she defiantly vows to kill the man who has savagely violated her. Suspecting the perpetrator is one of the three men who live next door, she invites the men round for a nighttime soirée to deduce who the suspect is using a novel method - she will sleep with each man in order to unveil the rapist who possesses a specific detail that she will instantly recognise. Once unmasked, Glora enacts her revenge on her assailant in typically bloodied Argento fashion. 


There's an intriguing idea in Amare e morire that would have perhaps lent itself to a more fleshed out, extended treatment. Argento later returned to the idea of rape revenge cinema in his complex 1996 thriller, The Stendhal Syndrome. Competently shot with distinctive hues of red and orange, the vignette is one of the more visually pleasing entries of Gli incubiOne of the most surprising aspects of Amare e morire is the use of Michael Jackson’s Bad on the soundtrack during Gloria's unconventional detective work. 



Episode 5: Nostalgia Punk


Nostalgia Punk is the most controversial episode of Gli incubi di Dario Argento, receiving numerous complaints upon its broadcast resulting in the tempering down of horror content in later episodes of the series. The short consists of a young woman having her fortune read by a fortune teller. Unhappy with her reading, the woman casts the fortune teller out of her home. In response, the fortune teller casts a curse on the woman’s glass of water turning it into a poisonous liquid. On drinking the concoction, the woman begins to vomit blood and other liquids; the gruesome display climaxing when she rips open her chest and pulls her guts from her body - an idea replicated in the opening of Argento's Mother of Tears (2007). Nostalgia Punk, and Gli incubi at large, demonstrate Argento's ability to push the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable for televisual broadcast. Alongside, Riti notturni, Nostalgia Punk is one of the shorts missing from online edits of the series but footage from the vignette can be seen in the making of the series.



Episode 6: La strega (The Witch)


La strega takes place at the rather ominous setting of a children’s birthday party. The birthday girl, Cinzia, celebrates with her friends as her father watches on. He suggests the children play a game called 'The Witch" down in the basement which involves the children guessing what objects are by touch, shrouded in darkness. The first objects are fairly innocuous - a hair clip and a shoe but the next objects are shown, to the audience, to be a foot and a head. As the children pass the body parts to one another, a child notes the head is wet and is horrified to discover that it's the decapitated head of Cinzia. Cinzi's father maniacally laughs brandishing a bloody blade. 


Purportedly based on Ray Bradbury's infamous horror short story, The October Game, La strega is a simple yet effective horror short playing on familiar horror tropes. As the children partake in the game, Morricone's score for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) ominously plays in the background, the childlike singing heightening the macabre scene. 



Episode 7: Addormentarsi (Falling Asleep)


A man lies on his bed, accompanied by his pet dog, restless and unable to sleep. He becomes transfixed by a series of strange shapes cast across his bedroom window - one resembling a devil's face. A malevolent apparition appears at the window as the man's dog furiously barks seemingly aware of an otherworldly presence. The outlined shadow at the window draws a blade and rushes towards the window pane, stabbing the man in the neck in a scene that resembles Helena Markos' death scene in Suspiria (1977). A flash of golden light appears and the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK begins to play as the man comes back to life possessed. His jaw dislocates and grows larger, turning into a grotesque gaping maw, and he eats the dog in a scene reminiscent of the The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).


Addormentarsi captures that strange lucid feeling of being between waking and sleeping combining typical Argento like imagery with grotesque caricature B-movie like special effects. The man in the short is none other than Lino Salemme who played Ripper in Demons (Bava, 1985), Inspector Corsi in Delirium (Bava, 1987) and Turi in Demonia (Fulci, 1990)


Episode 8: Sammy


Set on Christmas Eve, denoted by the use of with Band Aid's Do They Know Its Christmas and festive decorations. A girl named Sammy is left alone at home whilst her parents attend a Christmas party. Hearing a noise, Sammy is curious and decides to investigate its source descending the stairs into the family living room. She sees movement at the front door and runs up the stairs watching from a distance as a figure enters the house and begins to climb the stairs. Entering her room, Sammy is relieved to see that the intruder is a jolly looking Santa. He questions who she thought he was to which she replies 'a monster'. Sammy's relief is short lived when in response, Santa rips off his face revealing a hideous lizard alien monster underneath. 


A Christmas themed outing, albeit strikingly different to Argento's last foray into Christmas set horror with Profondo Rosso (1975), Sammy plays out like a tongue in cheek, child friendly horror short. Father Christmas' true appearance is a surprising yet humorous reveal. Lively behind the scenes footage from the vignette can be seen later on in the Giallo series. 



Episode 9: L’incubo di chi voleva interpretare l’incubo di Dario Argento (The Nightmares of the One who Wished to Explain Dario Argento’s Nightmares)


The final short in the series of Gli incubi di Dario Argento is a gloriously silly meta take on the previous eight episodes. A young man has been given the opportunity to be involved with Gli incubi and arrives at Argento's offices (a poster for Opera can be seen in the corridor) excited to meet the director. Argento, harangued by his staff, asks the young man to return the next day when he's less busy. The young man is sent to a nearby hostel where he's harassed by his roommates who steal his money and documents. Frustrated, the man reports the harassment to the desk clerk and makes a telephone call to Argento Productions explaining his predicament. On returning to the room, the other men chastise him for blabbing and hold him down brandishing a knife. Dario Argento appears flanked by his crew revealing that the scenario was an elaborate set-up as part of the programme. 


The final episode of the Gli incubi series feels like a fitting end to Argento's series of nightmarish shorts. L’incubo di chi voleva interpretare l’incubo di Dario Argento is Argento playfully poking fun at himself as well as his audience by playing with established preconceptions of Argento the director and his work in the horror genre. The short also briefly examines preconceptions in the racism depicted, exhibited by the young man towards his roommates at the hostel. The series, which sought to capture the surreal horror of Argento's nightmares fittingly ends with a nightmare within a nightmare blurring the lines between imagination and reality. 



A follow up post on Turno di notte will follow shortly.


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Horror Imagery & Cappellini

Saturday, 19 September 2020



I thought I would take a quick moment to share an interesting advertisement that I recently came across in the May/June 1980 issue of Harper's Gran Bazaar Italia. The advert is for the Italian furniture atelier Cappellini and was produced during the company's new creative direction at the helm of creative director, Giulio Cappellini. Cappellini sought to incorporate a more contemporary style of design into the atelier's product range; bringing in the designs of a range of, at the time, up and coming, contemporary designers to inject a new vibrant and forward looking design sensibility into Cappellini. The new creative direction proved fruitful and Giulio Cappellini modernised the atelier creating an international business featuring some of the most iconic designs in the past fifty years.

The above advertisement produced for Cappellini (advertising agency unknown) highlights the company's new creative direction. It's a striking image with clear horror overtones filtering macabre imagery through a high fashion sensibility. There's a beautiful use here of classic horror imagery with a glamorous woman about to succumb to an unseen killer. Malevolent shadows are cast on the muted background creating a sense of foreboding with the killer moments from striking. The image is punctuated by the vibrancy of the woman's red dress with its dramatic flowing form almost imitating a cascade of blood. Whilst the sideboard isn't at the forefront of the image, there's a nice contrast between the minimalist sleek furniture Cappellini presents and the rather archaic looking long handled axe. I love the dramatic flair of the image and what it conveys from a storytelling point of view, depicting a dark scene that's soon to unfold. The advertisement also serves as a reminder of the importance of interior design in the horror film; often serving as the theatrical staging for violent tableaus where sideboards and sofas are as much a part of the visual narrative as blood letting and macabre murders. Perhaps that's why the Italian horror films of the mid to late twentieth century resonate with me so greatly aesthetically; they are reflective of the Italian design trends of the period, showcasing trailblazing Italian style that perfectly marries with the contemporary themes and stylings of the Italian thriller. 

Unfortunately, I've been unable to find evidence of further images associated with this campaign or of Cappellini's historic print advertising but I'll continue to scour second hand Italian design magazines in the hope of finding some follow up images. If you want to see more concise posts about design and the Italian genre film, please let me know! 

Obbligo di Giocare - Zugzwang (Cesarano, 1989)

Wednesday, 16 September 2020


Note: This review contains spoilers 

Early one morning, Marco (Kim Rossi Stuart), an architecture student and lighting tech for a local theatre, puts up posters around the EUR district of Rome promoting the group's latest show. Whilst lost in his task, he hears a gunshot and in the search for its source, discovers a murdered young couple lying out on the pavement. The culprit of the murders (Andrea Prodan) hops on his bike and casually cycles away unaware of Marco's presence. Marco is struck by the casual indifference of the killer and feels compelled to follow him back to his home. Haunted by what he has witnessed and unable to shake his unease, Marco feels compelled to return to the killer's house the next day and follows him to a local supermarket. Whilst stealthily tracking the man down the aisles, Marco witnesses the man stab a woman before casually leaving the scene of the crime rendering Marco in a state of shock. Marco becomes obsessed with the mysterious man and decides against reporting the crimes instead, continuing to voyeuristically watch the man kill; simultaneously horrified and intrigued by the senseless murders he bears witness to. This new found obsession begins to eat away at Marco's relationships; putting a strain on his romance with girlfriend Paola (Nicoletta Della Corte), further damaging his already frayed relationship with his mother (Sonia Petrovna) and alienating his university friends. Yet Marco is seemingly unbothered, consumed by an overwhelming compulsion to partake in a silent game of cat and mouse that will inevitably end in his untimely demise.

The only directorial credit of television crime procedural writer, Daniele Cesarano, Obbligo di Giocare - Zugzwang is a curious entry in the cannon of Italian thriller cinema feeling like somewhat of an experimental, art house styled interpretation of the thriller film. In his debut, Cesarano utilises a loose thriller styled framework to examine protagonist Marco's existential crisis against the backdrop of an alienating, contemporary Rome. Cesarano clearly draws influence from the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, both thematically and visually, as a means to explore Marco's psychology and his difficulties in finding meaningful connection to the world he inhabits, often conveyed through visual allusions and drawing immediate comparison to cornerstones of Antonioni's career such as The Red Desert (1964) and Blow-Up (1966). Obbligo di Giocare's title, which translates in English to Obligation to play, perfectly captures Marco's compulsion to partake in a precarious game with the killer despite the danger it poses as a means to simply feel something. Yet, Marco inevitably becomes a prisoner of his obsession and compulsion. The zugzwang part of the film's title refers to a situation in chess in which a player feels compelled to move despite it being disadvantageous, making their position significantly weaker which is the narrative crux of Cesarano's film. 


Obbligo di Giocare's script was a collaboration between Cesarano and esteemed Italian screenwriter, Ugo Pirro. Pirro's work typically veered towards the political and his collaboration with director, Elio Petri characterised the politically charged Italian cinema of the late sixties and seventies. The pair worked together on several of the key political films of the era such as We Still Kill the Old Way (1967), Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) and Property is No Longer a Theft (1973). Pirro was nominated for two Oscars for his screenplays for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (De Sica, 1970). When discussing a fairly obscure film like Obbligo di Giocare, it's difficult to ascertain the involvement of certain individuals in the writing process however, some of the thematic tenants of Pirro's work are evident in Obbligo di Giocare especially in regards to the ambiguity of Marco as a protagonist as well as loose thematic ideas concerning the malleable constructs of society and reality. At the time of production, Cesarano was only 27 and as a result, Obbligo di Giocare feels very much like the product of a young filmmaker - a comment not meant as a criticism but as a reflection of the director's distinct voice as a young man and what that brings to the fore in terms of ideas and ruminations. The thematic ideas surrounding identity, existentialist dread and growing ennui brought on by the realities of adulthood feel authentic and identifiable as concerns of a young adult who finds themselves increasingly alienated and disenfranchised in trying to ascertain his role in society. 

As a result, Obbligo di Giocare feels fairly academic in nature; a rumination on society, the family unit and the existential crise of a young man in Rome in 1989. There's little dialogue throughout the film with much of the story conveyed through visual storytelling which suits the film well as its ambiguous nature lends itself to interpretation. But despite the film's sparse dialogue, we are given enough of a window into Marco's life to feel empathetic towards his character and understand his inherent need to pursue the killer despite the great danger he exposes himself to as a result. Kim Rossi Stuart, in a relatively early role, imbues the character of Marco with a sensitivity, competently expressing his character's spectrum of emotions; from abject horror to morbid fascination. Cinematographer, Alessio Gelsini Torresi's lens perfectly captures Marco's tortured expressions in a series of close up shots that convey his character's innermost feelings without a need to vocalise them. 


Yet despite the dialogue in Obbligo di Giocare being somewhat secondary to the film's visual storytelling, the sparse conversations that are presented provide a fleeting insight into the situations the characters find themselves in. Whilst much of the film focuses on extensive stalking sequences between Marco and the killer, Cesarano intersperses them with insight into Marco's torrid personal life. Marco lives with his mother in a modest Roman flat and their relationship is fraught. The mother and son rarely communicate despite Marco's mother's best efforts. Marco is either monosyllabic in his responses or irritated by his mother's questions and judgements. It's clear that Marco's mother wants to understand her son but isn't quite sure how to relate to him and her attempts to do so alienate him further. Marco's mother seemingly has a lover, who potentially wants her to move in with him, but she is reluctant to commit to him and says she must speak to Marco about their relationship. The lover is dismissive of Marco's mother's concern for her son and states that it doesn't concern him yet a burgeoning relationship between Marco's mother and her lover clearly is a concern for Marco who has become increasingly alienated by the change in his family dynamic - dismissed by his mother's new partner. Marco's father is absent from the family home and the pair communicate through stilted telephone calls. Marco's father hasn't seen his son in months and attempts to reach out to him but is unable to communicate with Marco beyond asking how his studies are going. In Marco's second phone call to his father he directs his ire at his dad, expressing how frustrated he is at being incessantly asked how his studies are and the lack of face to face conversation between the two which he renders pointless due to the banality of their telephone calls. There's also potentially a reference here to Marco's father having a new family (a baby) which would again indicate uncertainly in Marco's family life pushing him out of the picture of both his mother and father's life although one could argue that it's Marco who is shutting them out to avoid his own feelings of hurt and inadequacy. Marco's conversations with girlfriend Paola also serve to highlight his apathy and indifference to the relationships in his life. Marco's pursuit of the killer is deeply personal and Paola's reluctance to understand Marco's obsession highlights the distance between them.

Further context is given to the film's thematic ideas via the theatre production that Marco conducts the lighting design for, offering somewhat of an insight into the film's underlying themes with characters on stage waxing lyrical about unhappiness, deception and betrayal  - all very real aspects of Marco's own life. One line in the play feels particularly pertinent "they pay for that little piece of happiness however they pay dearly" (paraphrased) which foreshadows the film's ending in which Marco finds perverse happiness in his final moments. Another line spoken on stage about women dying young foreshadows the fate of Marco's mother - the catalyst for the film's final act.  


But undoubtedly Cesarano's forte in Obbligo di Giocare, is his understanding of film as a visual medium with sublime use of cinematography, composition and the Mise en scène.  The visual artistry of the film is clear to see and the aforementioned influence of Antonioni is undeniable with Cesarano's stark use of  architectural landscapes conveying the alienation and disassociation that Marco inherently feels. The environments Marco traverses have an, at times, oppressive and claustrophobic feel. The cinematic landscapes deviate between vast open concrete spaces and maze like constructions with narrow spaces that convey the idea that everything in Marco's life is rapidly closing in on him. Various recognisable Roman locations are featured in Obbligo di Giocare such as the Villaggio Olimpico, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana and the Rome metro with the vast majority of filming taking place in the EUR district of the city. Italian critic, Claudio Bartolini commented on Cesarano's cinematic landscape having a quality that resembled the work of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico and it is a visual comparison that certainly has credence. Cesarano's imposing architecture consisting of facades and arcades, casting long shadows whilst exhibiting elements of the surreal certainly resembles de Chirico's surreal painted depictions of architectural landscapes.



Each environment that Marco stalks the killer through is constructed in a labyrinthian manner. Mundane settings such as supermarkets, car parks and institutional buildings become visual mazes conveying the cat and mouse, game like nature of Marco's pursuit of the killer and in turn, the killer's pursuit of Marco.    This maze like motif is present from the film's opening shot which depicts a glass fronted building's grid facade imitating the appearance of an aerial view of a maze or a chess board. This grid motif continues throughout the film extending through the labyrinthian environments and their symmetrical motifs and ornamentation. And when we think of the environments depicted in Obbligo di Giocare we inevitably are drawn back to the film's title and the use of the chess term Zugzwang which is reflected in these labyrinthian scenes - visually playing out like a strategic game of chess with Marco and the killer navigating around their environments like pieces on a chess board, anticipating when next to move even if in Marco's case, it's disadvantageous. Which in essence is the crux of the film, Marco is compelled to partake in this strange game despite the imminent and inevitable risk to his person. The grid like nature of these spaces conveys the idea that Marco is on a path to his inevitable end, his life has already been mapped out for him and he's simply following its regimented course. A concept that one could argue applied to his life prior to witnessing the murder at the film's beginning. 

Marco's profession as an architecture student, something that is frequently referenced throughout, feels fitting in a film that is preoccupied with architectural symmetry and space. Marco is also arguably the architect of his own downfall, compelled to follow the killer and seemingly willing to risk his life. In a telephone call with his father, Marco speaks of a class he's taking in mathematical analysis which again, mirrors the theme's symmetrical environments and the mathematical nature of chess and the calculated risk the killer and Marco take. 


Whilst much of the film's symbolism is conveyed through architecture, other visual motifs are present throughout Obbligo di Giocare, most notably the presence of water. Rain water, puddles, swimming pools, sea water and spilt milk feature prominently. Numerous meanings can be applied to the significance of water in a text but here in Obbligo di Giocare, I suggest that it represents the subconscious mind of Marco; a manifestation of his inner turmoil and unrest. The stillness of the sea in the film's final moments suggesting that Marco's now at peace. 

Cesarano is adept at conveying the anxious thrill Marco feels in his pursuit of the killer and the stalking sequences are well crafted drawn out sequences that cultivate a real sense of mood and foreboding. As mentioned, Obbligo di Giocare is largely devoid of dialogue with long swathes of the action contained to Marco tracking the killer yet the simplicity of what's happening on screen is strangely hypnotic with the visuals leaving a marked imprint on the viewer. In one particularly effective stalking scene that takes place in the Rome Metro,  Marco pursues the killer through eerily quiet underground passages and walkways. The location is one that's been used before in Italian thriller films from Mystére (Vanzina, 1983) to Dial:Help (Deodato, 1988) but here the location has less of a frantic, bustling feel instead taking on an almost dreamlike feel due to the lack of commuters. This surreal aspect is heightened when Marco loses sight of the killer at the top of an escalator and instead finds the corpse of the killer's latest victim ascend from below indicating Marco's own impending doom. 


As a director, Cesarano successfully straddles the line between aching familiarity and surreality splicing routine scenarios against fantastical notions. This is evident in the film's pivotal double murder which takes place at the break of dawn. Here, Cesarano captures life as it slowly judders to a start. It's a time that often feels safe; the start of a new day before anything of note happens. We see people queue at bus stops ready to start their days - the early morning feeling like a time of humdrum routine which makes the double murder that takes place at the film's start all the more jarring and surreal.  The killer's lack of reaction to the murder he has committed and lack of urgency to remove himself from the scene of the crime adds to this surreal feel alongside Marco's ability to successfully track him home. When Marco returns to the theatre after a number of other murders have taken place, the killer alerts him to his presence by sitting in full view of the stage, illuminated by the theatrical lights Marco controls. When the lights switch, the killer disappears leaving his jacket behind. Another example of Cesarano leading the audience to question the validity of what Marco witnesses by creating an improbable, surreal scenario.


What's particularly unnerving about Obbligo di Giocare - Zugzwang is the normalcy of the murders that take place and the familiarity of the environments they occur within; the mundane framing for violent deeds. The murders are fleeting; violent acts punctuating banal settings. Once they have occurred, they instantly feel unreal or imagined as normalcy promptly resumes. The semantics of the murders or their nature aren't what's interesting here. The murders aren't the crescendos of elaborately violent, stylish set pieces but fleeting moments of bloodless violence made all the more shocking by the humdrum environments they take place within. Due to the fleeting nature of the murders and the immediate return to normalcy, we question the validity of what Marco sees. Both the killer and Marco are able to evade detection or questioning leading us to question whether the murders are in fact a product of Marco's imagination, a manifestation of a fractured state of mind or real life events. The film's experimental like sensibility further serves to indicate that the film's proceedings are a figment of Marco's imagination, a rumination on Marco's psychological state. An idea emphasised in the scene in which Marco's bicycle is revealed to be the same as the killer's indicating the film's ending will have a marked psychological bent. Cesarano plays with his audience's expectations in the film's climax when Marco and the killer finally meet and we realise that the events both we the audience and Marco have witnessed are in fact reality. Marco himself seems to experience unbridled joy in his meeting with the killer amongst a maze of beach huts on a deserted beach, gleefully enjoying being pursued whilst seemingly accepting of his fate, smiling as he's shot. It's the first time we see Marco smile throughout the film's duration, typically depicted as despondent and conflicted; a man wrestling with an acute sense of unhappiness and obligation.  Marco's ennui is palpable throughout the film and one gets the sense that death for him is a way to feel something, that the pursuit of the killer gave purpose to Marco's life and that subsequently nothing else mattered even if it led him to his inevitable doom. Yet, there's a calmness to proceedings. Marco is accepting of death, willing to walk into it, positively relishing in it. Post Marco's death, the killer seems perturbed for a moment, surveying Marco's body before walking off. The film's final shot of a pier surrounded by water with no means to access it is perhaps a rumination on the isolation that permeates Obbligo di Giocare. The final beach location also echoes a conversation with Marco's mother in which she encourages Marco to go to the beach with his father so it feels fitting that this is his final resting place and the resolution of the game he was obligated to play until its natural conclusion. 


Obbligo di Giocare - Zugzwang is an evocative, captivating piece of cinema that cultivates a distinct mood utilising architectural landscape in a love letter to Antonioni and as a means of conveying the thematic ideas at the heart of the narrative. Cesarano's film is experimental in nature eschewing a traditional thriller narrative yet it's a film that doesn't seek to provide answers, rather to pose questions inviting the viewer to transpose their own thoughts and feelings to the ideas presented throughout. Whilst Obbligo di Giocare may be an acquired taste it's a film that I find myself mesmerised by, transfixed by the rich cinematic landscape and questions it poses about existence, humanity and the existential crises of coming of age in an increasingly unfamiliar landscape - concepts that are just as pertinent in the modern age. 


If you like what I do here at Hypnotic Crescendos and want to show a bit of support, you can always drop me a few pennies via my PayPal - Rachaelnisbet@yahoo.co.uk 
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