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Thursday, 27 March 2008



Review: Matteo Poletti  (1)

Translation: Karen Vincent-Jones (2)

“My films aren’t really proper thrillers, they’re more like mathematical exercises in narrative time and tension”

Nowadays, after ten years of cinematic flops- his last film, The Three Mothers, made in 2007, received almost universally poor reviews - critics have filed away Dario Argento the genius, and downgraded him to a churner-out of violent or ludicrous B-movies. But Argento was and still is one of the most innovative film makers in Italian cinema, carrying on a tradition that combines elements of the thriller, fantasy and horror genres, and who has gained many fans and imitators, in Italy and the United States.

Argento, born in 1940, began his career in cinema as a film critic, so his approach to the seventh art is first and foremost analytical. He refers to his films as ‘exercises’, that is, re-workings, deconstructions, and reinterpretations of all that the cinema of the past has to offer. He can be viewed as the missing link between the classic cinema of Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Tourneur, and Siodmak and the first wave of innovation of the 1960s represented by directors like Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci. Argento has chosen  the thriller as his chosen vehicle for arousing terror in the viewer, deploying and intensifying the conventions of the genre: technical virtuosity, pauses, silences, suspense, chiaroscuro, but also blood, torture, all the gory slasher movie features that make viewers avert their eyes.

The viewer does not so much watch an Argento film as submit to it: every sequence is a death scene and viewers are forced into the role of passive observers. They are powerless to act, just like the people in the film, who are persecuted, endangered and finally put to death, mere puppets or objects, their bodies “used” by the director to create suspense. The eye, vision and the visual are the axis that the films revolve around. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) opens with a crime that a writer, Tony Musante witnesses while trapped behind a glass door and is unable to prevent. In Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) the reporter who investigates the crime is blind. In Flies on Grey Velvet (1972) the clue lies in a photograph of the latest victim’s retina, which still retains the last image she saw. David Hemmings, the main character in Deep Red (1975), catches a glimpse of the murderer’s reflection in a mirror. And without mentioning Stendhal Syndrome (1996), where Asia Argento’s eyes “see through” the canvases displayed in the Uffizi Gallery, or Opera (1987), in which the murderer props up Christina Marsillach’s eyelids with needles to force her to watch, wide-eyed, as he commits his brutal crimes.

However, for Argento, seeing is never the same as understanding: none of the main characters fully grasps the image that the eyes convey to the brain. Tony Musante’s interpretation of the scene he glimpses turns out to be mistaken; in fact the roles of  victim and  aggressor are reversed, and it is only at the end that Hemmings realises that  he saw the murderer’s face in the mirror. Looking, seeing, watching are actions which do not lead to the truth, but only to death: the one who knows must be eliminated. An equation  is set up between “characters =spectators= victims” (often reinforced by the use of a stage or a theatre, as in Flies on Grey Velvet, Opera, Deep Red, and The Phantom of the Opera) which emphasises the complete interchangeability of these roles. Protagonists, witnesses, victims and observers are in the hands of whoever plans the crime. The real murderer is the one who sets the scene and shows it to us- in fact, the director himself.

Argento works with what is visible and what is hidden. He reveals and hides at the same time, alternating between the long shot and the close-up, sometimes at great speed (his editing is often violent and his zoom shots unexpected), he takes advantage of every technical trick in the book, every macabre effect (sometimes sliding into slasher territory) to challenge the viewer to keep watching. So the urge to keep watching fights with the urge to ‘stop watching’ or finding it ‘unbearable to watch’.


“My films set out to be truthful, not realistic. They start by being rational and then become hyper-rational, and then end up as irrational and frenzied”, says Argento. The rationality is found in the main characters, amateur detectives, journalists, writers, artists, or musicians, although they too have a touch of the irrational or instinctive- they are are nearly all artistic or creative characters- but they live a “normal” life. Also the places, the cities where they live, are rational, or rather, “real”.

However this normality is destined to crumble at the moment when the characters are confronted with irrationality, psychological deviance and madness: all Argento’s murderers have within them a flaw, an obssession that expresses itself in criminal acts. The characters are forced to go on a distorted, visionary and fantastic journey where reason is progressively destroyed and the unnatural, the different and the monstrous (like the child-monster in Phenomena) penetrates and subverts the normal known universe. Even the cities become “fantastic”, places, unreal and distorted by photography that emphasises their menacing and sinister qualities. We can cite the disturbing geometry of Torin and its grand buildings, and the abandoned villas with their premonitions of death in Cat o’ Nine Tails, Deep Red, and Sleepless, the light-filled and futuristic Rome of Tenebrae, the dark New York of Inferno, or the Gothic and fairytale Friburg of Suspiria. The city’s reality is undermined; urban settings start to look like evil places, the breeding grounds for almost supernatural happenings and macabre events.

This constant  fluctuation between rationality and irrationality enables Argento to modulate from the classic thriller (Sleepless, Deep Red, the earliest films from the Seventies) and fantasy, and then to decend into the darkest depths of horror. It is no accident that The Three Mothers is the last in a trilogy of black fantasy that begins with Suspiria (1976) and continues with Inferno (1980). The natural and the supernatural blend in a danse macabre (the crimes so magically choreographed by Argento!) where evil, human or satanic, is portrayed in all its manifestations. The eyes, again, can see only one aspect, the physical effects. The abstract and the extra-sensory manifest themselves in concrete form in the tormented, tortured, shredded bodies dispatched before our eyes.  

Nowadays Argento is accused of poverty of ideas, of scrappy screenplays, incoherence and a lack of aesthetic sense. The critics hate his work, seeing it as aggressive, obscene, and kitsch.  But Argento has always pursued his ‘exercises’ in the creation of suspense, and the  expansion of narrative in the service of a cinematic vision which mixes the intangible and the corporeal, which crosses over from the possible to the improbable, to madness and black magic.  

Argento has remained faithful to his own aesthetics and his own style; in line with our times, this director has continued to speak to us of the excesses of vision, of our addiction to scenes of cruelty, tragedy, violence (do we now look away from the bleakness that television presents us with?); he has carried on exploiting film references and clichés in order to lead viewers to the magic and sinister lands of the horror story, filmic demons, normal situations that become weird, inexplicable, and terrifying; he has developed and enriched a genre – the thriller, ignored in Italy until the seventies- which has often been unjkustly snubbed or relegated to the category of mere entertainment.      

(1)Matteo Poletti was born (in 1979) and lives in the province of Turin. He has degrees in Educational Studies and History of the Cinema from the University of Turin. His day job in a restaurant in a beautiful mountain village in Alta Valsusa gives him the time and the peace to indulge in his other two passions: film and writing. He is a contributor to movie websites and writes crime novels that have been front runners in major literary competitions. In 2007 his first police thriller Lo sguardo di Carola  (Carola’s Eyes) won first prize in the “Hidden Clue” competition organised by the Terza Pagina publishing house. 
(2)Karen Vincent-Jones studied French and Italian at the University of Exeter. She has the dubious distinction of having been deported from Italy in 1971 after a police raid on a party and a round-up of undesirable foreigners. She ventured back for the occasional holiday, and later, having become a ‘citizen above suspicion’ and a university lecturer, returned as Visiting Professor to the University of Bologna, first in 1988, when the university was in uproar over the assassination of the Dean of the Political Science Faculty, Senator Roberto Ruffilli, by the Red Brigades. She went back again in 1991, this time arriving to find the city paralysed by mass anti-war demonstrations. Italy is an exciting place… She is now a full-time translator. 
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