Sunday, 24 June 2007

Solamente nero / The Bloodstained Shadow

Young mathematician Stefano D'Archangelo (Lino Capolicchio) returns to the Venetian island of Murano to recuperate from a nervous illness. After chatting with young artist/designer Sandra Sellani (Stefani Casini – Suspiria) on the train, he is met off the ferry by his older brother Paolo (Craig Hill), now the island's priest.

Who saw her die and who caused her demise - the girl in the flashbacks


Paolo; perhaps the shot / reverse shot construction of the sequence in the restaurant retrospectively conveys the distance between the brothers?

The brothers go for a meal and to catch up on what has been happening, with Paolo voicing his frustration at his inability to do anything about Murano's degenerates and deviants – an atheistic gay aristocrat with paedophile tendencies; a doctor whom he suspects to have murdered his wife and who refuses to use his wealth and influence to help the poor and disadvantaged; and a midwife rumoured to have a crazy son and to performs illegal abortions – all of whom also participate in seances conducted by a medium.

Solamente Nero is a term that also applies to many of the film's visuals

During the night Paolo is awoken by a noise. Going to the window, he sees two figures struggling in the street. Stefano arrives and the brothers go to investigate, but find nothing amidst the darkness and torrential rain.

Paolo finds a note warning him of the consequences of delving further into the matter: “If one speaks of murder, yours will be talked about.” He and Stefano debate what to do, only for their discussion to be rendered irrelevant when the medium's body is found strangled elsewhere on the island, the mode of her death recalling a still-unsolved child murder from their youth and triggering one of Stefano's nervous attacks.

When Paolo narrowly avoids being crushed by a falling stone crucifix – the symbolism of the scene is obvious, if effectively staged – it becomes clear the killer intends to make good on his threat. Yet, in that he is also targetting the same corrupting influences Paolo had earlier railed against, continuing with the Count, the killer also confusingly appears have some common ground with the priest himself.

Had not Paolo earlier remarked that the count was “a most despicable individual... without morals,” and that “it might be better if he disappeared from the face of the earth.”?

Meanwhile, courting Sandra and visiting her mother's house in Venice, Stefano happens upon a painting that triggers another one of his attacks...

Two brothers who cannot face one another nor the truth?

This 1978 giallo from Antonio Bido starts off promisingly with two impressively mounted murder set pieces – an impressionistic slow-motion flashback whose meaning is gradually determined as the investigation develops and a classic expressionistic dark and stormy night – but thereafter seems to lose its way somewhat.

The chief culprit here is the romantic subplot between Stefano and Sandra, which seems somewhat shoehorned in at times, never more than in an awkwardly handled love scene which neither performers Lino Capolocchio and Stefania Casini – both of whom are otherwise pretty good in their respective roles – nor Bido seem very comfortable with. (Admittedly the same could be said, for instance, of the comparable scene in The Cat o' Nine Tails, but there one gets the impression that a sense of unease – even disgust – is more deliberate than accidental thematically.)

In a similar vein whilst the evocation of life in a small town provides for a change of pace and the Venetian locations impart their usual picturesque qualities – mist shrouded canals, winding passageways etc. – those with a liking for more kitschy and trashy fare may feel a bit short-changed since while Bido's visuals style is certainly dynamic, his use of handheld-camera, zooms, canted angles, extreme close-ups and jarring cuts – i.e. all the standard tropes of the giallo – is judicious rather than grandstanding for the most part, and his colour palette, lighting and design largely subdued.

Sandra is stalked through the alleys of Venice before Stefano makes his appearance, looking like he's wearing Dracula's cape here

Two set-pieces perhaps best encapsulate Solamente Nero / The Bloodstained Shadow's qualities.

The first is the aforementioned debate between the brothers. Bido frames their exchange in a mirror, such that they appear to be facing opposite directions. In many gialli – The Case of the Bloody Iris is a particularly good counterpoint here – this would likely be a throwaway piece of visual trickery for its own sake. Here, however, it becomes invested with meaning, suggesting the distance between the brothers and their paths through life – a classic set of binary oppositions, between science and religion, reason and faith, staying and leaving Murano, sexual relationships and celibacy etc. – along with the fact that we do not have a full picture of either man.

The art of darkness

The child in the primal scene

The problem, speaking here from the perspective of the more mainstream giallo, is that this then weakens our point of identification. We do not have one character we know to be innocent of the crimes to function our surrogate as detective committed to unveiling the truth. If we comparing Stefano to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's Sam Dalmas and Deep Red's Marc Daly, the key difference is that when he recalls his moment of trauma he does not know his place within the scene, whether he was an innocent witness or the perpetrator. (It's perhaps not too much of a spoiler to indicate those aware of the rules of the game as far as red herrings and suspects go will be able to work out the identity of the killer without too much difficulty.)

The awkward love scene

It is also such differences that help Bido's film find its own identity rather than simply coming across as ersatz Argento – and a comparison with Tenebrae might be interesting here – as also seen in the way that the medium is here presented as a Trauma-style fake than the genuine article as with Deep Red, or in Stefano's Stendhal Syndrome-esque interludes when confronted by the enigmatic painting.

The second is a long wordless passage where the handheld I-camera stalks Sandra through the sidestreets and canals of Venice. The sequence goes on for what seems like an eternity and is undoubtedly effective in terms of suspense and shock dynamics, with a textbook Lewtonian “bus” moment as Sandra is startled by a drunken accordion player who jumps out at her for no particular reason, but seems ultimately a touch gratuitous when the figure who finally emerges is Stefano.

Broken dolls...

... ocular close ups...

... black gloved hands removing a vital visual fragment

Again, however, given the aforementioned questions as to his role – further enhanced here by the way Bido has the character dressed and framed – or the possibility that our perspective has imperceptibly shifted from one stalker to another, with Stefano's presence possibly scaring an actual would-be attacker away, other interpretations are certainly possible.

As with The Cat with the Eyes of Jade / Watch Me When I Kill, Bido employs a very Goblin-esque score along with the occasional diegetically located classical interlude. Here however, the music was actually performed by the group, although for contractual reasons it is Stelvio Cipriani's name that appears on the credits.

Indeed, it's perhaps Goblin's score that encapsulates the ambiguous position of The Bloodstained Shadow in relation to the art and filone cinemas, insufficiently respectable and concerned with exhibiting the approved taste for the former – or, possibly, perhaps trying too hard for crossover appeal to it, in the manner of the prog-rock concept album – yet a touch too idiosyncratic and non-formulaic for the latter.

Once again “their” respective losses prove “our” gains in terms of the pleasures of interpreting – that is both reading and re-writing – the giallo text, above all in trying to tease out all those contradictions and our own responses to them, in my case as (self-)conscious (self-)marginal(ising) would-be intellectual...

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