Friday, 27 July 2007

Il Sorriso della iena / Smile Before Death

An open and shut case?

“Here we are sir. She cut her throat with a shard from this broken glass. The post mortem showed she'd been drinking pretty heavily. The door here was locked from the inside. It has to be suicide”

Or so conclude the authorities undertaking the official inquiry into the death of Dorothy Emerson, in a typical display of giallo ineffectiveness.

It's less the end of the affair, however, than the beginning of a whole series of new ones as the dead woman's daughter Nancy (Luciana Della Robbia / Jenny Tamburi) turns up unexpectedly on her mother's estate and quickly realises the truth – or at least enough of it – to be a danger to the conspirators behind the murder and thus in danger herself.

Marco (Silvano Tranquillli), you see, wanted a divorce from his wife and a financial settlement that would resolve his debts, which she saw no reason to give. He is in league with Dorothy's photographer friend Gianna, who has distinct lesbian tendencies and quickly develops an intense attraction to the young woman that threatens to compromise her own position or at least compel its re-evaluation...

To say anything more, however, would run the risk of ruining a taut, extremely well-crafted giallo for the first time viewer.

Blocks of yellow are a important feature of Silvio Amadeo's mise-en-scene, although unfortunately the panning and scanning sometimes seems to conspire against his compositions.

What can be said, however, is that Smile Before Death / Il Sorriso della iena - literally The Smile of the Hyena, and thus the obviously more giallo-sounding title - is a film that not only repays but actually rewards repeat viewings, thanks to numerous subtleties to the dialogue, direction and performances, alternately combining and contradicting one another, along with a convoluted plot that manages to both avoid feeling contrived and to keep the viewer enthralled all the way to a surprise yet retrospectively inevitable finale followed by a sting in the coda that, if maybe a touch deus ex machina, can equally be forgiven for its delicious ironies.

The male gaze, trapped in a woman's body?

Female to-be-looked-at-ness?

Or something a whole lot more complex given all these mirrors, with their multiple images , representations and connotations?

To pick just one moment out of literally dozens: consider the way in which when Nancy falls in the lake – having earlier been informed by Gianna that “the lake is very dangerous at this time” by way of a possible warning – the detail of the accident is obscured from us in a long shot from the perspective of a (convenient) onlooker turned saviour, so that we do not know whether Nancy fell or was pushed, nor quite what to make of her – significantly – unseen but reported nightmare: “I had this awful dream. Marco didn't try to help me. He was going to let me down and he didn't care – he just laughed.”

Its also this kind of thing that gives the film an interpretive richness far beyond the kind of casual summations as exploitative and offensive trash that you could well imagine coming from the pen of more mainstream or politically correct commentators.

Gianna: “Tender like a quivering faun lost in the woods.”
Nancy: “And not finding its mother it takes flight”

For while it might seem doubly exploitative of the film-makers to include a character like Gianna, in that her positioning as bisexual and active bearer of the gaze neatly allows the male spectator to enjoy the spectacle of female flesh without directly being implicated in the scene as voyeur, to me the way it all plays out seems rather to express an honest if seemingly misanthropic statement of the truth as it applies to both real life and giallo film representation: Things are never quite that simple and the equations of male power / guilt and female lack of power / innocence never absolute.

Do I look like a (wo)man who exploits women? Just who is taking advantage of who here?

Indeed, one wonders what sort of readings can be made of the scene where, having finished an intensive photo-session with Nancy, Gianna sighs and languidly removes her camera before then going over to gently caress the young woman: are we here seeing Gianna enjoy masculinised phallicised sexuality through the medium of the penetrative camera to then revert back, post visual / aural suggestions of orgasm, to a more (stereotypically) touchy-feely, non-aggressive ideal(ised) feminine sexuality? Beyond this, what is Nancy's role as the necessary counterpart / complement / complicator in these configurations?

Will the real Nancy please step forward?

The point is whether such questions can be answered definitively – they can't – but that they have rarely been raised with regard to European popular cinema like Smile Before Death, too often dismissed as mere Eurotrash, or else enjoyed but in a not-to-be-taken seriously way that can just end up having the same effect as fan and academic types continue to speak past rather than to each other.

Something similar can be said with regard to the performances, where the intimate nature of the piece – three main characters, three supporting ones – adds to the demands upon Neri, Tranquilli and Tamburi: They have to act as must as be, to convey not just attractiveness, sophistication and guilelessness in the more usual typed way we find in most other gialli (i.e. Edwige Fenech = hysterical woman, George Hilton = suave, suspicious man), but also the performative aspects of such and the tensions that thereby emerge between the 'inner' and 'outer' realms.

Thus, rather than just being Rosalba Neri as the femme fatale, we have Rosalba Neri as the femme fatale whose cold calculations are prone to go awry through the influence of passions she cannot quite control, as with – to again pick out an exemplary moment – the way Gianna cannot quite face Nancy and the truth when the latter intimates that she believes her mother to have been murdered, a little gesture that says an awful lot.

Gianna's look away Neri's finest moment?

Silvano Tranquili is required not just to embody “The typical Latin lover, passion and jealousy,” as Nancy puts it – the kind of the character that giallo aficionados will have doubtless seen him play time and again – but also to maintaining sufficient distance from this role to convey that it is less of a made-to-measure, fits-like-a-black-glove suit than an off-the-peg one-size sort-of fits-all-but-not-really one, existentially and (in)authentically his own.

It is perhaps Tamburi who delivers the finest performance of all, however, with what could well be the pinnacle of her career. (Regrettably I haven't seen much of her work; what she does here makes me want to rectify that.) Again, it's difficult to really say anything without running the risk of spoiling your enjoyment, but on a repeat viewing you really appreciate what she is doing beyond simply exposing her flesh – even if this in itself may be enough for many.

Note the yellow car

Even more remarkably, all this comes across when watching a less than ideal panned and scanned, English dubbed version of the film – the kind of presentation that, unfortunately, is all we often have with too many films hitherto condemned to be forgotten as less interesting typical examples of a genre or filone.

But, as Smile Before Death (and hopefully this discussion) demonstrate, is there ever really such a thing? Isn't it always that when we consider the individual film and its aesthetics in their its own terms, there is invariably and inevitably more to be said?

1 comment:

Roger L. said...

So great to read a considered discussion of Amadio. He's always been one of my favorites and deserves much more study. What he's doing is never on accident.