Monday, 30 March 2009

Un Fiocco nero per Deborah / A Black Ribbon for Deborah / The Torment / Deborah

This is one of those more aspirational examples of the supernatural thriller which, while welcome for generally eschewing the usual black-gloved elements in favour of character driven drama, never quite manages to amount to more than the sum of its parts.

We open in a circus, the ideal introductory location for its combination of the spectacular, the carnivalesque and the uncanny. Here it is established that Deborah Lagrange (Marina Malfatti) has some sort of supernatural powers as she predicts, or more ominously precipitates, a trapeze artist's fall.

The theme of science versus magic is neatly developed over the next few sequences, as we learn that Deborah is desperate to have a baby but cannot conceive - according to her gynaecologist, it would need "a miracle" - and are introduced to her husband Michel, a physicist who apparently refuses to believe that God would play dice, and their friend, a parapsychologist more attuned to such possibilities.

The theme soon becomes more than just a matter for friendly discussions between rivals as, following an car accident involving a pregnant woman and her husband, Deborah falls pregnant. While Michel is naturally overjoyed at - not least because what he has felt to be his wife's obsessive and impossible desire has threatened to drive a rift between them, as evidenced by his remarks to his conveniently young and attractive assistant - the gynaecologist insists that the pregnancy is not real and merely a phantom, a self-delusion brought about by Deborah's will to believe...

There's not getting away from the fact, as immediately established by Marina Malfatti's pixie style cut, that A Black Ribbon for Deborah owes a lot to Rosemary's Baby in its paranoid exploration of pregnancy.

If this palimpsestic phantom haunting the text in itself isn't anything unusual within the Italian cinema if we also think of the likes of Francesco Barilli's The Perfume of the Lady in Black and Sergio Martino's All the Colours of the Dark, the issue is that writer-director Marcello Andrei's work can't quite compete with Barilli's film as art nor with Martino's as an example of the filone.

Nevertheless, these are also two films which set the standard relatively high - Barilli's film possibly even managing to exert an influence on Polanski's The Tenant and certainly rising above the level of mere imitation - with Andrei also clearly trying his hardest to do something out of the ordinary.

Though it's hard to be sure how well the version under review reflected the original's framing, with the aspect ratio, at somewhere between 1.77:1 and 1.85:1 could have been correct but looked more likely to have been cropped from a wider screen source, the compositions still made good use of the screen space to convey the emotional closeness or distance between characters.

Andrei also makes nice symbolic use of the colour yellow and of more showy techniques - dissolves, canted angles, circling and hand-held camera etc. - to effectively convey Deborah's subjective states.

While readable as a more or less textbook application of Koven's notion of a vernacular poetry of the giallo, this is also an unusual example in not being connected to the giallo or horror "violence number" specifically and, in conveying a shared neurotic rather than psychotic state, is arguably closer to Pasolini's original model.

That Andrei should have striven to do something different and succeeded, albeit to a limited degree, is perhaps not surprising when we look at his somewhat mysterious filmography in a bit more detail: making his debut with the documentary Archipeligo di fuoco in 1957, he scripted and directed his first fiction film, Eye of the Needle, in 1963. Nothing further was forthcoming until 1974 when he wrote and directed what was to be the first of four films in as many years, Verginata. Then, after the 1977 western El macho, he disappeared from view until 1988, when his last film, another documentary, Aurora Express was released.

Nor is the film without other points of interest.

It's pleasing to see Marina Malfatti, normally cast as a supporting character - she plays a victim of the satanic cult in the Edwige Fenech vehicle All the Colours of the Dark, and villains in Emilio Miraglia's gothic giallo diptytch of The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and The Night Evelyn Came out of the Tomb - tackle the lead role for a change. It's still more pleasing that she makes the most of the opportunity and demonstrates that she was deserving of larger and more demanding parts than the eye-candy ones she was more routinely given.

Elsewhere, we also get a nice Cat People derived zoo visit sequence - useful as a reminder that Polanski's film was hardly the first to connect female sexuality to the demonic nor to use suggestion rather than showing wherever possible - and are treated to a unusually diverse score courtesy of Alberto Verrecchia (another somewhat enigmatic figure with only five film credits, all between 1973 and 1975, to his name) that makes the most of free-jazz styled sax squalls and honks as counterpoint to the animal noises in the selfsame zoo sequence.

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