Alberto Cavallone

A one-of-a-kind figure amidst Italian cinema

by Roberto Curti Volume 6, Issue 3 / March 2002 7 minutes (1716 words)

In the mid-Seventies Italy was enduring hard times. Those were the so-called ‘Anni di Piombo’ (Leaden Years), years of terrorism and slaughters, bombs blasting on trains and people being shot in the streets in cold blood. Most Italian movies of the period reflected the anxiety and uneasiness that could be read on people’s faces and eyes, and conveyed the same sense of dismay. This happened not only with auteurs (Mario Monicelli’s UN BORGHESE PICCOLO PICCOLO was perhaps the ultimate in portraying middle class paranoia, thanks to Alberto Sordi’s meticulously subdued performance, whereas Dino Risi’s CARO PAPA’ exemplified the fears of bourgeoise fathers who were reluctantly discovering their sons’ extremist viewpoints) but with genre cinema as well. Most significantly, after the decline of the spaghetti western, it was the crime-cop movie that had taken its place as the most commercially fruitful genre.

What’s more, sex was all over the place: newsstands were overflowing with porn magazines and adults-only comic books, while autochthonous pornography was gradually finding a niche within the movie industry; in 1976 Aristide Massaccesi’s EMANUELLE IN AMERICA marked the hardcore debut of an actress who would become the first real ‘Italian’ pornstar, Swedish-born Marina Hedmann. If lewd, innocuous comedies starring the likes of Edwige Fenech, Gloria Guida and Anna Maria Rizzoli represented the lighter face of sexploitation, the so-called Nazi subgenre (spawned by Tinto Brass’ SALON KITTY) and women-in-prison films showed its darker side. Italy’s most powerful and controversial intellectual figure after WW2, writer/director Pier Paolo Pasolini, had abjured the so-called ‘Trilogy of Life’ (IL DECAMERON, I RACCONTI DI CANTERBURY, IL FIORE DELLE MILLE E UNA NOTTE) and his final film, SALO’, had been like a curtain casting a shadow all over Italian cinema, not the least because of the author’s shocking death which preceded the film’s release and censorial tribulations.

In the mid-Seventies, Alberto Cavallone was a marginal, one-of-a-kind figure amidst Italian cinema. In 1968, his second film, LE SALAMANDRE, had won him a decent commercial success, thanks to its allusive title and lesbian undertones, which somewhat overshadowed the film’s sociopolitical theme – colonialism. Labelled by many as a hack specialized in sex flicks, Cavallone was nevertheless an eccentric, anarchic filmmaker with a vast culture and unorthodox working methods. His subsequent films soon dilapidated the commercial credit he had gained with LE SALAMANDRE. DAL NOSTRO INVIATO A COPENHAGEN (1969) was a harsh parable about the Vietnam war, whereas QUICKLY (1971) was a no-nonsense deconstruction of the spy genre, filled with bizarre cartoon inserts (helmed by Cavallone himself) and sporting a self-reflecting, postmodern attitude. AFRIKA (1974) once again dealt with colonialism and homosexuality, with mixed results; but by that time, the director was finding it more and more difficult to put his ideas on film. With SPELL (1977), Cavallone ceased any attempt at creating a commercially palatable product and simply let his surrealistic pulsions and obsessions detonate on screen: Sade, Georges Bataille’s L’HISTOIRE DE L’OEIL (an eye protruding from a vagina) and Gustave Courbet’s painting L’ORIGINE DU MONDE were all part of an amazingly stratified narrative mosaic which openly defied logic in favour of ellipses, analogies and daring juxtapositions of provocative images, such as a butcher who screws a side of beef, a lady drinking water from a toilet bowl and a jaw-dropping ending in which a woman defecates over a man’s face, smothering him to death. After the unfinished MALDOROR, an aborted attempt at putting on screen the suggestions of Lautrèamont’s poetry in a contemporary context, Cavallone went on to make his most significative and extreme film to date.

BLUE MOVIE (1978) germinated almost as a challenge: Cavallone directed it in just one week with a ridiculous budget, using real-life ambients and unexperienced actors (the only familiar face is that of Patrizia (Dirce) Funari, who would star in Massaccesi’s XXX Caribbean flicks, LE NOTTI EROTICHE DEI MORTI VIVENTI and PORNO HOLOCAUST). The director’s influences and references are extremely clear from the beginning, starting with the title itself, which expressly quotes Andy Warhol’s BLUE MOVIE (a.k.a. FUCK, 1964) and echoes Dusan Makavejev’s SWEET MOVIE. The former’s convinction of the entire technical reproduceability of Art (and, consequently, its mercification to the masses) applied to movies, and the latter’s grim pastiche about the failure of both Capitalism and Communism are cannibalized and epitomized with total disregard for narrative cohesion. The Makavejev connection, however, does not end with the title. If SWEET MOVIE showed – in accordance with the director’s typical iconoclastic use of newsreel – the shocking images of the Katyn massacre, Cavallone uses stock footage of WW2 Concentration Camps and bonzes setting themselves on fire. In SWEET MOVIE Carol Laure bathed in chocolate: here Dirce Funari smears her whole body with her own fecies.

The plot or at least what one can get of it, which isn’t much deals with a photographer (Claude Maran) who’s been upset by his experience in Vietnam and is obsessed with the symbols of consumerism. This leads him to victimize a model (Dirce Funari), who accepts to become the photographer’s ultimate slave/object. He meets a girl (Danielle Dugas) who suffers from sexual hallucinations and fantasies of men intent on raping her. Their lives intertwine and gradually collapse as they virtually isolate themselves from the outside world.

The opening titles waste no time in underlining Cavallone’s point of view: a series of camera shots is accompanied by the sound of gun shots. BLUE MOVIE is filled with such equations. Images Are Bullets. Sex Is Violence. Violence Is Sex. What’s more, if Hitchcock referred to actors as ‘cattle’ and Bava compared them to insects (cfr. the grotesque death of Claudio Camaso [Volontè] in BAY OF BLOOD, transfixed with a harpoon and pinned to a wall like a giant, grotesque cockroach), Cavallone goes even further. For him, actors are merchandise, and merchandise is shit. Twelve years after BLOW UP, once again a photographer plasmates his model as if she was a mere object. There is no difference between a coke can and a nude body: both are being used to sell goods. Both are ultimately full of piss and shit. The same goes for movies, Cavallone seemingly adds between the lines: while leading avant-garde and hardcore porn to consumate an impossible coitus interruptus, he systematically proceeds to reject every aesthetic rule just like his protagonist repudiates what is commonly accepted as ‘beautiful’.

If John Waters’ PINK FLAMINGOS proposed a reversal of aesthetics (the more one thing/person/act is/looks ugly, the more he/she/it will turn perversely palatable for the viewer: bad taste therefore becomes good taste), BLUE MOVIE simply gets rid of them. The cinéma-verité flavour suggested by the minuscule budget is incessantly interrupted by surrealistic flashes, unnerving details, and a-rhythmic cuts. The structure is non-linear, even puzzling at times. Yet Cavallone manages to create unforgettably surreal and cruel images out of innocuous objects, like the sight of a fridge which contains only Marlboro packets and Coke cans (filled respectively with fecies and urine). The graphically portrayed scatological excesses make BLUE MOVIE an ideal prosecution of Cavallone’s SPELL, yet even bleaker and more unflinchingly filmed. For example, in what is perhaps one of the most daring and extreme moments ever committed to celluloid, Funari is held prisoner inside a room where she has to defecate and urinate in order to fill up the packets and cans, and receives vacuum canned junk food in exchange, in a bitter and nihilistic mockery of consumerisms’ ‘product for use’ urgency. The use of classical music (Bach, Offenbach) emphasizes Cavallone’s resorting to an abstract, experimental narrative form. It’s hard to believe such a nihilistic, self-destroying work eventually managed to find a theatrical release. The Board of Censors asked for a number of cuts, but did not ban the film; maybe it sensed it was better to ignore such a monstrum rather than underline its existence.

If at first one wonders what audience Cavallone was aiming at, by the end it’s pretty obvious the director never really cared about an audience. Despite the inclusion of explicit sexual acts, which caused the film to be distributed in the XXX circuit (with a relatively high success, which left Cavallone totally unprepared: “I was bewildered by the box office results. BLUE MOVIE was meant to be a sort of j’accuse against porn industry.”), it’s hard to imagine something more at odds with the unwritten laws that rule hardcore porn. The brief sex sessions are jarring and frustrating in the extreme. There is no climax, and no catharsis. But the importance of this obscure, vilified film (only recently unearthed and released on tape in Italy after more than twenty years of oblivion) goes beyond its peculiar cinematic qualities.

Watching BLUE MOVIE about one quarter of a century later, what still strikes the viewer most is the director’s despair (intellectual, historical, even moral -absurd as it may sound, for a film depicting such radical, extreme acts, Cavallone’s vision is a deeply moral one) towards a decade going terribly wrong. Cavallone is as cruel as he is disillusioned: perhaps only Pasolini dared to go that far with SALO’. And, in many ways, BLUE MOVIE may well be considered SALO’ ‘s unacknowledged spawn. It proved to be Cavallone’s spiritual testament as well as an authorial suicide. His two following films remained virtually unseen: BLOW JOB (1981), despite its crudely exploitative (yet once again Warholian) title, was inspired by Castaneda’s writings as well as Aldous Huxley’s essay on drugs DOORS OF PERCEPTION, while IL PADRONE DEL MONDO (1983) followed the path of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s LA GUERRE DU FEU by showing the life of stone-age tribes with a keen eye on anthropological details. Afterwards, Cavallone went on to direct gritty undeground porn under the pseudonym ‘Baron Corvo’ (both BABY SITTER and PAT UNA DONNA PARTICOLARE, shot in the early ’80s, featured a midget and absurd plots) before retiring, until his untimely death in November 1997. But watching BLUE MOVIE’s first images one feels that part of him had already died. Italian cinema would follow him several years later, with a slow and painful agony that is still being perpetuated to this day.

Alberto Cavallone

Roberto Curti is an Italian film critic and film historian who lives in Cortona, Italy and has written many books on Italian cinema, with a focus on Popular cinemas. He’s a regular contributor to Nocturno and has collaborated, among others, to the Spanish mag Quatermass. In 2003 he co-wrote (with Tommaso La Selva) Sex and Violence, a volume on extreme cinema, which is in its second edition, 2007, and in 2004 a Spanish-published monography on James Coburn, El samurai del oeste (The Samurai of the West). He is also the author of Italia odia (Italy Hates, 2006), an in-depth history of Italian crime and noir films, and Stanley Kubrick: Rapina a mano armata (Stanley Kubrick: The Killing, 2007), an in-depth analysis of Kubrick’s The Killing, Demoni e dei, a book on the devil and god in American horror cinema, and Fantasmi D’Amore, a book on the Italian gothic across cinema, literature and television. Since then he has published many books in English on Italian cinema for McFarland Press, including Italian Crime Filmography 1968-1980 (2013); Diabolika: Supercriminals, Superheroes and the Comic Book Universe in Italian Cinema (2016), Tonino Valeri: The Films (2016), Mavericks of Italian Cinema: Eight Unorthodox Filmmakers, 1940s-2000s (2018); Riccardo Freda: The Life and Works of a Born Filmmaker (2017), and a trilogy of volumes on Italian Gothic Horror Films (1957-1969; 1970-1979; 1980-1989) in 2015, 2017, 2019 respectively. He has also written the monograph on Blood and Black Lace in the Devil’s Advocates series for Auteur Publishing (2019).

Volume 6, Issue 3 / March 2002 Essays   exploitation   italian cinema