The '68 Comeback Special: Grazie, Zia

As David Cairns and I have been highligting the films of the '68 Cannes Film Festival, I was wondering which of us would hit upon a true disaster first. Turns out, that would be me. I try, always, to find something likable in even the most detestable works of trash (I am a card-carrying member of the Joe D'Amato fan club, after all), and Grazie, Zia came close to defeating me. It starts with the cartoon intro. An insidious pop song with a shrieking girl chorus plays over too-loud drums while an impish, exaggerated cartoon avatar of wheelchair-bound hero Lou Castel races around the credits against a backdrop that suggests Hanna-Barbera approximating Laugh-In for even less money than they typically spent. Then, before the song has played for an entire verse, the other music comes in...the somehow even-more-saccharine Ennio Morricone piece that will pop up every six or seven minutes from then on to remind audiences to feel something, anything! The soundtrack tries for innocence or insouciance and comes off cloying and obnoxious, which might be fine except it never. Fucking. ENDS! 

Once we've gotten enough of that piece stuck in our heads, against all odds the pop song then returns for another few bars. The first image we're treated to when the misguided titles have stopped flashing? Lou Castel writhing in pain during electroshock treatment. The movie might have been intended as a joke, a pop-art cartoon satirizing the idle rich, but Castel has not been let in on this joke. He injures you with his screaming, and no amount of mock playfulness can hide the torment he's going through. The movie hasn't started and it's clear that with Salvatore Semperi, we are in the hands of a truly sadistic director, someone on par with Michaels Bay or Winner. 

The trailer below is important because it gives you a sense of everything that goes wrong. There's the focus on the breasts and vaginas of humiliated, sad women over faces or dialogue (no subtitles, but believe me you don't need them). Castel freaks out like a petulant child, not like someone plagued by massive internal conflict. You'll see the editing attempting to forge some coherent tone or shape. You'll notice not only the grating pop song from the credits, but towards the end that deathless Morricone tune that plagues the soundtrack like a rash it can't shake. The accidental glamour of the players. The pigheaded image-making and the overbearing, unattractive confidence. Watch this so you might be spared the whole ugly picture.

In its defense: a performance from Lisa Gastoni that's so good it doesn't seem possible she gave it. This from the pin-up girl from the Gamma One films? She drips with a unique melancholia, at once sad, neglected, conflicted, rich, empty and powerless. Her intended doesn't appreciate her fully and Castel (playing her nephew) does, but in a deeply upsetting way. Which makes her feel worse? Semperi tries to undercut her at every turn by disrobing her and making her purely an object of lust whenever it suits him, but she evidently sensed she might never get another shot at heavy-lifting like this and never does anything less than awe-inspiring work. I don't think she was ever as beautiful on screen and she certainly never commanded the frame in this way, her dark eyes effortlessly pulling you in. The script makes a hash of her character but she's better than the material. Of course she'd almost have to be as Grazie, Zia feels like a fratboy power fantasy (a rich boy seduces his appealing older, unfulfilled relation) rather than the scathing social commentary it wants to be. 

Also in the film's corner: Lou Castel. Any film with Castel is interesting enough to watch at least once. Don't question me on this. It's a fact of science! This film's biggest misstep? Putting Castel, a live wire who so ruthlessly grabs your sympathies in Fists In the Pocket, in a wheelchair. Not only is he stuck delivering warmed-over political-ish dialogue (for all his fuckery, his character doesn't actually seem to believe in anything), he can't even stand up and walk away, let alone explode with anger, run around or hide in shadow. Everything that makes Fists in the Pocket seem like a revelation, something both outside of and in the guts of the time that spawned it, are why Grazie, Zia feels totally inessential and useless. It wants to have thought of the conceit of Fists in the Pocket first, so rather than be subtle about its apocalyptic implications it saws them off like shotgun barrels and begins blasting up the place like William Holden in The Wild Bunch. Its overt politics are second-hand Godard but rather than playful and knowing they're childish and snide. Godard, for his part, had said everything he could by 1967 in a completely oblique fashion that plays as subtle if only because it's wrapped in thirty layers of text, subtext, supertext, metatext, megatext and context, then chewed up and spit out for our second digestion. When you reach 1965, you feel permanently a step behind him; not always a good feeling. How do you fully enjoy something that feels like it was deliberately not made for you? Grazie, Zia is even further behind that. Worse still is that all its best elements and style are begged, borrowed or stolen. 
Nothing is explained, up to and including everything Castel, Gastoni and her fiance Gabriele Ferzetti do, say or feel. Everything in Grazie, Zia simply happens because Semperi had seen these things happen before in better films and that was motivation enough. Lou Castel is here as a man who wants to murder his family because he did the same thing in Fists in the Pocket. This has the effect of making him seem like he survived that film and found a new family to terrorize, rather like Patrick Vive Ancorra only, needless to say, far less fun. To waste Lou Castel is criminal. To make him borderline slappable is unthinkable. Rarely are actors so impossibly fascinating. He twitches and sparks fly. Semperi relies on this to make his film compelling when he isn't lifting devices wholesale. Pop music appears because he'd heard it in Masculin Féminin, La Chinoise, L'Avventura and L'Eclisse. The framing and contrast are right out of Bellocchio's China Is Near. The relationship dynamic between Gastoni and Castel is straight out of Bertolucci's Before The Revolution. To add insult to injury, Semperi boosted Revolution's cinematographer Aldo Scavarda, (who, along with Ferzetti, is a hostage from L'Avventura). Even worse, if clearly a coincidence: Bertolucci is now actually confined to a wheelchair due to health problems, as if Semperi wasn't content with stealing from him and took his health while he was at it. That's how powerfully awful this film feels. The editing becomes crisp and angular just as Castel reads a Diabolik comic, suggesting the serialized work of Franju (rather than Bava - Semperi would have needed an actual sense of humour to crib from him), whose work we suddenly feel we're watching second-hand, as if Castel had found one of his films while channel surfing. The political subtext makes the film feel like like a forerunner to Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds about bringing the wealthy elite off their pedestal. Except that Semperi acts like one of the cardigan sporting villains from those movies, looking down on everyone with equal, unearned contempt. It's Snobs Vs. Snobs, and no one wins. As soon as I saw the game he was playing I began joylessly waiting for the incest I knew must surely be on the way, pining for the overblown and misguided La Luna. I knew anything that Bellocchio and Bertolucci flirted with, Grazie, Zia would mount like a drunken coed playing truth or dare. Every Cannes has a dud or two. If only this had been the lone misstep in the 1968 line-up. Unfortunately, greater crimes await us...

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