Saturday, 6 October 2007

La Polizia chiede aiuto / What Have You Done to Your Daughters?

Acting on an anonymous tip off, the police discover the naked body of a schoolgirl, soon identified as Silvia Solvesi, hanging in a locked loft.

Sincerity or sensationalism?

The autopsy reveals that she had had sex just prior to death, with “traces of sperm in the vagina, the anus and the stomach,” and was two months pregnant; other details also point to murder rather than suicide....

The discovery of the body

The dead girl's boyfriend Marcello is an obvious point of call, but has a rock-solid alibi, having been spelunking at the time of her death. He reveals that she sexual partners before him and was surprisingly wealthy for a 15-year-old schoolgirl, even one with rich – if predominantly absent – parents.

The projector keeps rolling as the image is freeze-framed and enlarged, but we can forgive them this...

Going to the apartment Silvia secretly rented, Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) and new public prosecutor Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) find enough blood to indicate a second murder and prompting a feeding frenzy amongst the press.

Their investigation soon leads to another body, that of the private investigator who had briefly been employed by Silvia's mother to tail her after she caught the underage girl daughter with contraceptive pills, with this in turn leading to the discovery that Silvia was one of a number of girls involved in a schoolgirl prostitution ring.

Its masterminds remain elusive, however. Worse, a seemingly unstoppable machete-wielding assassin in motorbike leathers is intent on killing off anyone who might aid the investigators in their quest...

Cassinelli and Ralli impress in their roles

Released in 1974 at the point when the poliziotto was taking over from the giallo at the Italian box office, Massimo Dallamano's La Polizia chiede aiuto / What Have You Done to Your Daughters? may hedge its bets by including elements of both filone – note, for instance, how the killer in the leathers is unambiguously identified as male by his voice, although he remains nameless and faceless until later – but ultimately succeeds on its own terms as a worthwhile continuation of the unofficial schoolgirls peril trilogy inaugurated by What Have They done to Solange? two years earlier.

A touching moment

Unlike that film there we are not presented with a parade of suspects and red herrings and invited to sift through the evidence and attempt to solve the mystery for ourselves. Rather, we follow Silvestri, Stori and their colleagues more or less in lock step with few if any digressions without a direct bearing on their investigations, resulting in a faster pace and more consistent if decidedly downbeat and sordid tone compared to its predecessor.

An exploitative image, an image of exploitation, or both?

This also helps us in knowing how we are supposed to respond to the sight of the naked Silvia / Cheryl Lee Buchanan, for instance, as equally or more an images of exploitation than an exploitative image, marking something of a contrast with the often confused stance of Solange in the likes of its shower sequences.

On the other hand, Solange is perhaps the more successful of the two films as far as using music is concerned. While Stelvio Cipriani's driving score certainly matches the pace of the film and ratchets up the tension as and when required, it is less diverse and feels less integrated into the whole; I tend to find Cipriani's cues, while certainly effective and memorable enough as pieces of music somewhat interchangable between films, in that I hearing yet another signature ostinato but can never quite place it as the leitmotif for a specific character / film.

An effective shock moment

As with the poliziotto there is a strong element of political critique to the film with an interesting balance insofar as both post-1968 radicals and the establishment are commented on, the former for the ease with which they seem to be able to accommodate previously apolitical violent elements (we're told that one of the rioters captured on the film went from convictions for assault to political extremism) and the latter for their endemic, systematic corruption. Unlike the more typical entry within that filone, however, there is a curious lack of resolution. No-one steps outside the boundaries of the law to deliver vigilante justice nor resigns their post in disgust and / or despair; there is no “free hand for a tough cop” to be found here.

A new alliance?

Paradoxically, this also gives the ending to an otherwise grim film a curiously upbeat quality. One gets the sense of new alliances being formed and a determination to get it right the next time, Silvestri and Stori having realised that their differences in attitude and approach pertain to means rather than ends, with the former's masculine directness and the latter's feminine touch each having their role to play. (“You've proved yourself as capable as any man,” as Silvestri tells Stori in response to her “fishing” for insights – and, crucially, getting them where he is not always able.)

He knows...

and she knows he knows...

This impression is also sustained by the closing title. Although compromised by overstating its message – while I can't claim to be an expert, do the majority of runaways really just disappear, never to be seen again as title implies? – and being ironically juxtaposed with the disclaimer that the film is not intended to refer to any real persons or situations, I found the effect curiously reminiscent of Fritz Lang's M, the message that it is now up to the audience; that we are the ones who can effect a change and who should be watch out for our own daughters.

Cassinelli and Ralli themselves well, even allowing for the effects of dubbing, bringing intelligence and sensitivity to their performances, while Mario Adorf again impresses with his range in a smaller role as Valentini.

Dallamano does likewise, utilising a wide variety of techniques, including frenetic first person handheld camera, dramatic angles and compositions and distorting lenses, but without indulging in style-for-styles sake type grandstanding .

Though the suspense and action sequences are well handled – excepting a lapse in continuity when the killer's nighttime attempt on Rita's life at the hospital segues into a daytime chase – the most accomplished and powerful moments are in many respects also the simplest in their construction.

One thinks here of the private detective's ex-wife coming to identify her husband's remains and indicating, despite Casinelli's stating that it is not necessary, she wants to see them all, “the whole thing, how the bastard ended up,” to then break down as the reality underlying this tough talking, the mess of pieces, hits her; or of the exchange of looks between Valentini and his daughter Patricia, their changes in expression proving far more powerful than the dramatic zoom or intensifying close-ups a less thoughtful film-maker would likely have employed as an indication that he now knows her secret...

Above all, however, it is the sequence where Silvestri, Stori and audience listen, with mounting horror to the tape capturing exchanges between the schoolgirls and their clients. Running just short of three minutes, Dallamano constructs the sequence with only three shots, with minimal camera movement.

A masterclass in the minimal producing the maximum effect

It is a “poetic” instance that seems to confirm the underlying sincerity of the piece, confounding the expectations of those after easy entertainment by doing the kind of thing more expected of Antonioni – as per the famous end sequences of L'Eclisse and L'Avventura – than filone.

As with Don't Torture a Duckling the filming of a funeral provides a clue

It also provides a salutory reminder that it is easy to over-emphasise the visual element to the detriment of all else, the clue that ultimately leads to the identification of those behind the prostitution ring proving, as with many gialli, to be aural rather than visual.

Beyond this, meanwhile, one wonders whether we could speak of aural displeasure as a counterpart / counterpoint to the famous Mulveyean notion of visual pleasure – a pleasure, of course, that Dallamano is also keen to make us aware of and throw into question by the relentless self-referentiality of his images (“damn peeping tom; still, maybe we should thank him for the lead,” remarks Silvestri at one point) and auto-critique of media sensationalism.

Sincerity or sensationalism?, once more

I Bambini ci guardano

That the killer – in truth little more than a minion doing the dirty work – is brought to book through the intervention of a young girl leads nicely into the third part of the triad, Enigma Rosso / Rings of Fear, where her counterpart takes a rather more active and involved role...


Anonymous said...

I don't think that sincerity and sensationalism need to be mutually exclusive and in the case of the filone audience sensationalism might even be necessary to convey empathy.
For some reason I just thought about the Christ figurines and pictures you find in Latin America which often look like kitsch from a European perspective, but need to be that vivd in order to convey the suffering of Christ in a way people, whose own lives are often so nightmarish that anything else would fail to get the desired reaction.

K H Brown said...

A very good point - thinking about it, in trying to show that there's more artistry to the film that many would credit it with I probably swung too far in the direction of saying it's sincere, thus committing the reverse error to those who would probably only say it was sensationalist, because of that reflex reaction that sensationalism is inherently bad, which of course it isn't.

The kitsch point is a good one as well - just because the artwork may not be produced with sincere intentions (which I don't think is the case here( this doesn't mean it can't be consumed in an authentic way. In terms of the filone cinema, I think that's akin to the difference between the film-maker who makes whatever is popular, but doesn't really care about doing a good job, and the one who tries to make the most of any assignment.