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La Dolce morta
and the giallo
Mikel J Koven argues for the Italian giallo tradition as a "cinema of ambivalence; specifically, ambivalence towards modernity." His discussion highlights the giallo's fluctuating, often contradictory takes on language, on modernity's creature comforts, on its breaking down of geographic boundaries and on "modernity's pluralism and the changing social and cultural mores."
This article is part of a larger, and on-going, project: a book-length study of the giallo as genre, looking specifically at its morphological structure, ultimately theorising what it means to speak of a film as "typical" of its genre. At this stage, however, I want to consider the spaces and locations these films utilise. What I hope to demonstrate is that the giallo demonstrates a marked ambivalence towards modernity, a position affected by the filmmaker and reflecting to some extent these films' vernacular audiences.
Thinking about these films' use of geographical space, as Italian productions, it should not be too surprising to find that the vast majority of them are set in Italy, and more specifically, in and around the Rome area. Although a few gialli situate themselves in and around other parts of the country, such as Venice (Lado 1972; Bido 1978) or Padua (Bido 1977), Rome and its surrounding areas—with their close proximity to the studio infrastructures—make up the largest single urban setting.
However, many gialli are set outside Italy and across Europe, with one set in New York City (Fulci 1982) and another geographically unspecified, but implied to be somewhere in the United States (Polselli 1972). The European settings for the gialli in question include cities such as Prague (Lado 1971), Paris (Bava 1969), Barcelona (Lenzi 1975), Hamburg (Dallamano 1968), Dublin (Freda 1971) and London (Dallamano 1972; Castellari; Fulci 1971). Gary Needham, in one of the very few scholarly pieces on the giallo, claims that these films reflect their literary generic origins through their disparate locations—what he refers to as mise-en-abîme. Needham suggests that they are the cinematic equivalent of "vacation novels," the kinds of stories we consume while on holiday, and that this is reflected in the films' locales. He notes that "the obsessions with travel and tourism [are partially]...a mark of the newly emerging European jet-set (consider how many gialli begin or end in airports)." In fact, we can see the giallo films as virtual shadows to the period's jet-set European sophistication: turning La dolce vita into La dolce morta.
Although he omits any reference to the country's horror pictures, Pierre Sorlin's work on Italian national cinema addresses Italy's practice of dubbing films, regardless of their country of origin or original language. "Language, in this instance, does a strange trick, it camouflages an object which belongs to the national cinema (people see it like any genuine Italian picture) while being alien to it (nobody thinks that the action takes place in Milan or Rome)." Applied to the giallo, a pan-European Italian-ness begins to emerge through the language of these films: despite their non-Italian locations, at least those set outside of the Italian peninsula, everyone speaks more or less the same version of middle-class Roman Italian (this procedure works backwards too, when watching Italian films dubbed into English—particularly American English). Italian thus becomes the lingua franca of Europe.
But the ambivalence noted by Sorlin operates so as to suture the Italian audience member into the film's locale while constantly drawing attention to its own artificiality. This artificiality of the dubbing procedure is partially underlined by the often internationally recognisable casts (no one believes that George Lazenby, John Mills or Carole Baker are actually speaking Italian in the giallo films in which they appear—and this is verified if one can lip-read); but it also invokes a self-conscious myth about an Italian koine which unites all of Europe and cuts across class boundaries. So the first site of ambivalence is geographical: these films recognise the "jet-set" aesthetic, the involvement and interest in other parts of Europe, while also recognising how artificial these representations really are.
Distinct from the geographical setting of these films (the cities and regions in which they take place), many gialli confine themselves within clearly bounded spaces. Some restrict their action to apartment complexes (Crispiano 1973; Carnimeo 1971) or college campuses (Martino 1973). By far the most common site for localised giallo action, however, is the isolated house or villa (Martino 1973; Bava 1983; Freda 1980; Lenzi 1969). Sometimes these isolated houses are fashion houses (Bava 1964; Bava 1969) and sometimes they are even lighthouses (Lenzi 1974). These villas or houses are on the outskirts of the cities, marginalised and isolated from the modern urban experience, enabling the genre's black-gloved serial killers to move about with greater freedom. Much less common, although significantly less common, are gialli in which the action is localised within rural villages (Fulci 1972; Bava 1966).
Much like the American "slasher" movies of the late 1970s-early 1980s (which the giallo certainly helped influence), by isolating the action, particularly to the outskirts of a major metropolitan city, these films challenge the complacency of the modern age. The accoutrements of modernity are present or available to the characters, but not necessarily immediately available to them. It has been suggested by Carol Clover that the killer in the generic slasher movie tends to utilise pre-technological means of committing murder—basic weapons and tools such as knives, axes and the occasional pitchfork. In the giallo, however, killers are not so limited, often turning modernity's stuff back onto its consumers. And while the police can be expected to show up, due to their workload (and sometimes apathy), they cannot be expected to show up when actually needed.
The gialli that take place in rural contexts are another matter altogether. Here the tension within the film often centres around the villagers' resistance to modernity. In the small rural Apulian village of Lucio Fulci's Non si sevizia un paperino (Don't Torture a Duckling, 1972), the local boys are being systematically murdered. One of the chief suspects is the village witch, Maciara (Florinda Bolkan), who we have seen scrabbling in the ground next to a modern motorway, disinterring the skeletal remains of an infant (almost the first shot of the movie) and preparing wax figures of the village boys and inserting needles in them, "voodoo"-style.
Despite being cleared of the murders by the local constabulary and the CID officers, the village men still think Marciara is the guilty party, as she holds a liminal position within the community, both as member and as outsider. Two village men confront her in the church cemetery as she is leaving the police station and beat her to death with chains. She manages to crawl to the side of the motorway looking for help from the passing vacationing traffic, but despite being seen by the motorists, she is left to die in plain sight.
In referring to the opening of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1964), wherein Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), the film's protagonist, has a dream about being stuck in an enormous traffic jam, Sorlin writes: "However caustic it was, his opening scene sanctioned a general conviction: ours is the era of individual means of transport, for better or worse we have to use cars."  In the giallo, cars are also used ambivalently, as in the case of Non si sevizia un paperino: they are a symbol of modernity, bringing the modern age to disparate rural areas.
We ourselves, in watching Fulci's film, are participating in yet another apparatus of modernity (cinema), but we also are engaged in a kind of tourism. Like the diegetic motorists of Non si sevizia un paperino, we drive on by, unable to help Maciara—looking the other way. Fulci underlines this discourse in the film's very first shot, in what begins as a pastoral, almost bucolic, landscape of rural Apulia; the shot then pans slightly left to reveal an elevated motorway slicing through the idyll.
Unlike "high-art" Italian filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Fulci is not glorifying the rural way of life per se; yet neither is he presenting an argument wherein modernity equals progress—both positions are much too simplistic. Instead, he presents our perception of the landscape ambivalently, as at once bucolic and modern. In Fulci's previous giallo, Una Lucertola con la pelle di donna (A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, 1971), which takes place in London, the sexual repression of the characters is framed against grand Victorian architecture: reflecting the dual fact that the Victorian age built grand churches and the Royal Albert Hall (substituting here for the Old Bailey), yet was also responsible for the cold, unemotional, "stiff-upper-lip" sexually frustrated modern Englishman (and woman). In Fulci's films, like in the rest of giallo cinema, the effects of modernity are ambivalent.
The giallo's settings and locations, however, are more than just stagnant backdrops; certain character roles are often fulfilled by foreigners and outsiders, and part of this cinema's ambivalence is in these liminal roles. As Needham observes: "The main protagonist of the giallo is often the foreigner in Italy or the Italian on holiday...[travelling through] 'exotic locations'... Characters don't seem fixed to a home or location; they are always (in)between different places." Going beyond Needham's schema, there are four different sorts of roles that foreigners in these films generally fulfil: sometimes they are the killer, sometimes they are the victims, sometimes they are the suspects and sometimes the role of the amateur detective is filled by someone who is not a part of the diegetic community.
By "foreign" here, I am not just referring to non-Italians, for in many gialli which do not take place on the Italian peninsula, the mystery centres on some outsider or foreigner who disrupts the narrative equilibrium. Nor am I necessarily referring to national foreignness, as sometimes these outsider roles are fulfilled by characters who may belong nationally, but who are separated in some other way or ways from the cultural hegemonic space.
Many giallo victims are either foreign or somehow encoded as being outside a hegemonic norm. Some of the victims in these movies are Italians living abroad (Bava 1969), or gay (Argento 1971b), or lesbian (Fulci 1971) or Afro-Caribbean (Carnimeo 1971; Freda 1980). Sometimes they are German (Argento 1971a; Lenzi 1974), sometimes American (Lenzi 1969 & 1975; Lado 1971), sometimes of Asian-Pacific origin (Bava 1964). Unlike the domestic victims in these films, the deaths of these foreigners or outsiders have a problematic status—not that these people deserve to be murdered, but their presence within the diegetic society is complicated by their role as victim. As the protagonist in Luigi Bazzoni's Giornata nera per l'ariete (The Fifth Cord, 1971) (Fraco Nero) pointedly notes: "They're coming and going all the time. From all over the world. It's like a hotel". These victims are more than just victims, as their presence raises investigative questions as to why they are there in the first place.
Sometimes the giallo's killer is equally marked as coming from outside the hegemonic society: although typically Italian (or at least holding citizenship in the country where the action occurs), the killer might be Jewish (Carnimeo 1971), lesbian (Fulci 1971) or transgendered (Bava 1983)—or, as in the case of The Fifth Cord, both foreign (Australian) and gay... In Giuliano Carnimeo's Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer? (The Case of the Bloody Iris, 1971), the Jewish Professor Isaacs (Georges Rigaud) has been murdering the beautiful young women who live in his apartment complex because he blames them for somehow "corrupting" his daughter into "lesbianism."
While Professor Isaacs may be a respected resident in the complex—by virtue of his profession, and in terms of the mystery narrative, not really a suspect (unlike his lecherous daughter Sheena [Annabella Incontrera])—he and his motive are encoded as being different, not really Italian, despite his citizenship. Other outsider killers in the giallo are German (Lenzi 1974), Hungarian (Polselli 1972), American (Lenzi 1975), even British (Lenzi 1969). But despite the frequent suspicions concerning foreigners, this list demonstrates that foreign/outsider killers are in fact the exception to the rule.
Although they rarely turn out to be the murderer, foreigners are usually among the prime suspects in giallo cinema. Sometimes they are Italians living abroad (Dallamano 1972), or else not geographically foreign but still somehow encoded as being different due to sexual orientation (Lado 1972; Lenzi 1975) or lifestyle (the hippies in Fulci 1971). Other foreign suspects have been German (Argento 1971a), Greek (Fulci 1983), Hungarian (Polselli 1972), but most frequently either American (Lenzi 1975; Lado 1971; Argento 1970; Fulci 1971) or British (Crispiano 1973; Lenzi 1969). What these three roles for outsiders and foreigners in the giallo indicate is an ambivalence towards the kind of jet-set, La dolce vita culture that permeated Italian cinema during this period. Similar to what was discussed above in terms of setting and location, whereby Italians were portrayed in these films as free to travel throughout Europe (and thus get involved in nasty murder mysteries wherever they go), foreigners and "foreign ideas" are shown to be capable of entering Italy, with lethal consequences for the hegemony.
This is perhaps best illustrated by those gialli which are not about foreigners entering another country (or Italians living abroad), but, like Non si sevizia un paperino, which concern outsiders to a community who disrupt a longstanding or long-repressed crime. Non si sevizia un paperino's murderer, the young parish priest Don Alberto (Marc Porel), murders young boys because he witnesses their increasing loss of innocence as outsiders become more frequent visitors to their Apulian village. In the film's openings shots we witness cars coming towards the village, and one of the potential victims watching from an overpass.
Echoing John Boorman's Deliverance (1972), where the severely inbred banjo-playing child acts as a gate-keeper to the wilderness, this child in Non si sevizia un paperino, firing a sling-shot at a lizard sunning itself on a rock, stands at a liminal space between the modern world and the idyll of the village. Because that modern world is encroaching on the Apulian idyll, and with it the community's loss of innocence, Don Alberto sees himself as sending the village boys to Heaven while they remain in a state of uncorrupted grace.
While Non si sevizia un paperino's themes may be more explicit in this regard than in other gialli, modernity's shattering of the idyllic isolation experienced by rural Italian villages is quite common, and can also be seen as underlying the narrative logic in Antonio Bido's Solemente Nero (The Blood-Stained Shadow, 1978) and Pupi Avati's Casa dalle finestre che ridono (The House with Laughing Windows, 1976).
This disruption is most obviously evident in the role of the amateur detective. Unlike the more standard Italian policier narratives, the giallo tends to focus on an amateur detective who witnesses one of the murders and, in asking the right sorts of questions, often shows up the local constabulary. Specifically in films such as Non si sevizia un paperino, Operazione paura (1966), Solemente Nero, Casa dalle finestre che ridono and Chi l'ha vista morire? (Who Saw Her Die?, 1972), the detective comes from outside the native community. Other examples feature Germans (Lenzi 1974), Hungarians (Polselli 1972), Americans (Lenzi 1975; Lado 1971; Argento 1970) and Italians living abroad (Dallamano 1972) who disrupt police procedure. These "foreign" disruptions challenge the normal procedures and, while ultimately proving correct, underline the tension between modernity and tradition which I have argued constitutes the overriding logic of this tradition.
The giallo is a cinema of ambivalence; specifically, ambivalence towards modernity. It neither praises nor condemns either traditional hegemonic beliefs or modernity's demands on Italy's role as a member of the European community or an international tourist destination. One of these sites of ambivalence is geographical—both culturally- and politically-speaking. These films problematise the roles and spaces Italians occupy within the world, and the roles others play within Italy. These ambivalences can be summarised as:
- ambivalence towards language, where modernity is represented within the communicative apparatus itself;
- ambivalence towards modernity's accoutrements and creature comforts, specifically the availability of the car;
- ambivalence towards modernity's breaking down of the boundaries which make travel easier, thereby allowing Italians to live and travel in other countries and allowing other foreign nationals to live and travel within Italy; and
- ambivalence towards modernity's pluralism and the changing social and cultural mores.
It is too easy just to say that, in appealing to the lowest common denominator, gialli
are conservative, regressive and reactionary (although they may be). More significantly, they open up a discursive space wherein modernity itself can be discussed and critiqued.
Mikel J Koven
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