Produced by Alberto Grimaldi; directed by Elio Petri; story by Tonino Guerra and Elio Petri; screenplay by Luciano Vincenzoni and Elio Petri; cinematography by Luigi Kuveiller; edited by Ruggero Mastroianni; music by Ennio Morricone; starring Franco Nero, Vanessa Redgrave, Georges Géret, Madeleine Damien, Rita Caideroni and Gabriella Grimaldi. Color, 105 min. An MGM Limited Edition Collection release.
During a directorial career that lasted less than twenty years, one that was cut short by his untimely death from cancer at the age of fifty-three, Italian filmmaker Elio Petri saw only a few of his dozen or so feature films released in the U.S. Cinephiles in this country will know him best as the director of The 10th Victim (1965), a sci-fi/fantasy about a future society that attempts to regulate violence through “Big Hunt” competitions in which citizens are pitted against one another as designated killers or victims; We Still Kill the Old Way (1967), a crime/mystery film exposing Mafia corruption and domination of Sicilian society; The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971), a portrait of the radical transformation of a Milanese factory worker and an analysis of the schizophrenia of contemporary working-class life; and, most notably, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), Petri’s most critically acclaimed film and winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, a Kafkaesque political thriller featuring an authoritarian police inspector who deliberately leaves clues proving his commission of a murder in order to test his privileged immunity from justice.
Petri came from a working-class background and was briefly a member of the Italian Communist Party, for several of whose publications he wrote as a film critic. As a teenager, he rejected his Catholic religious indoctrination, which led him to read widely in literature, psychology, and sociology. As a result, all of Petri’s films are characterized by their provocative (or, as his critics would charge, confusedly incoherent) blend of politics and psychology, conveyed in an expressionistic cinematic style, often with a surrealistic or grotesque edge. Depending on the particular film, in fact, one can detect in Petri’s work the influence of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Erving Goffman, or Bertolt Brecht, among many others.
His most audaciously “experimental” film was A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), recently released as an MOD DVD from the MGM Limited Edition Collection. Probably best described as a psychological horror film, it portrays the mental turmoil of Milanese painter Leonardo Ferri (Franco Nero), who has become increasingly repulsed by the art world’s cynical commodification of his work. To help him escape the pressures of urban life, Leonardo persuades his lover/sales agent Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave) to let him rent an ancient villa in the countryside, where he hopes to rid himself of the bizarre nightmares he has been experiencing—seemingly fuelled by the business demands of his mistress, with whom he shares a kinky, porno-magazine-inspired sexual relationship—and thereby not only regain his mental health but also restore his artistic inspiration.
Petri’s decision to make his protagonist a painter is a reflection of the filmmaker’s passionate interest in painting, both as a serious student and a collector. For this film, Petri commissioned the then-very-trendy American pop artist Jim Dine to create a series of abstract expressionist canvases, which are seen under the opening main titles and in subsequent scenes as the work of the film’s artistically blocked action painter.
Soon after setting himself up in the abandoned villa, however, Leonardo is troubled by new distractions involving the spirit of the beautiful, eighteen-year-old daughter of the villa’s former owner, who died mysteriously during WWII. His efforts to solve the mystery of the young woman’s death—including a séance to communicate with her—and to cope with her ghostly visitations and violent attacks against Flavia, only contribute to his further mental disintegration. Leonardo is finally unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy and a series of gruesomely violent hallucinations pave the way for a bizarre, surprise ending.
From its opening scene, in fact, the film immerses us in the nightmarish delusions of Leonardo, and throughout the film the viewer is often unable to determine whether what they are seeing is actually happening or is only another of Leonardo’s hallucinations or nightmares. A Quiet Place in the Country is thus more memorable for its creepy atmosphere than any compelling or coherent narrative. In this the film is aided immeasurably by the offbeat cinematography of Luigi Kuveiller—utilizing unusual camera angles, reflections, slow motion, erratic hand-held POV shots, now-you-see-it and now-you-don’t images, and even a kaleidoscopic lens—whose footage is frequently assembled in a fragmented, jarringly disjunctive editorial style and a few high-speed montages, complemented by a nerve-jangling, discordant score nominally composed by Ennio Morricone, but in this case as just one of several members of the Nuova Consonanza group of avant-garde and experimental composers. (Collectors of Morricone scores be forewarned: there are no haunting melodies here from this prolific and immensely talented composer. This is one of his more atmospheric efforts, one designed to emotionally complement the film’s mood, but which is otherwise an off-putting listening experience, similar in style to Morricone’s dissonant scores for several Dario Argento films.)
A Quiet Place in the Country is finally both a disquieting and a dissatisfying film, one in which the notion of the alienation of the artist from his society serves more as the vehicle for an ambitious formal experiment than a serious examination of the theme. As such, it is most likely to be appreciated by Petri completists, lovers of giallos, or those who would enjoy seeing Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave in their youthful prime.
Most of the rest of us, Petri aficionados included, can better spend their time hoping to one day see a supplements-filled Criterion Collection edition of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
Gary Crowdus is the Editor-in-Chief ofCineaste.
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