This is one of those films whose alternate titles give rather different expectations.
Delitto a Oxford, Crime at Oxford, suggests a giallo, perhaps something akin to the same year’s The Weekend Murders.
Alba pagana, Pagan Dawn, suggests more of a fantasy or horror film, perhaps still a mystery/thriller but one that will move into Nothing But the Night or Wicker Man territory.
In the event, Ugo Liberatore’s film is less a giallo or a horror film than a drama, though its denouement isn’t too far from being a more realist, 1970-set version of Society.
For, like Brian Yuzna’s film, what is explored here is a particular demi-monde where it is all about fitting in, with our protagonist being the one who does not.
Not only is Alessio Orano’s Valerio Montelli an Italian in this most English of settings, but he’s also from humble origins, attending Oxford University on a rowing scholarship. As such, he’s only of interest to his fellow students and his tutors as athletic commodity and for his value as an anthropological curiosity.
And anthropological curiosity is what the film comes across as today on account of its documentary style scenes of student life and hippie subculture circa 1970 along with a prominently featured and ear-pleasing folk / psychedelic rock soundtrack, each as a vision of England through Italian eyes. (Franco Montemurro’s The Battle of the Mods is also worth a look in this regard for its representation of the Liverpool scene of a few years earlier.)
Equally, however, the combination of entrenched social hieararchy and hippies doesn’t quite gel given the latter’s purported ideology, unless we see the film as a proto-punk critique that was advancing the “don’t trust a hippie” idea six or so years avant la lettre.
John Steiner plays the aristocratic villain of the piece, Rodney Roderick Stanton; Jane Birkin the potential love interest and Rosella Falk her vaguely Mrs Robinson-esque mother, each proving ideal for their respective roles.
Liberatore’s direction is energetic and quite stylish, with some nice use of mirror-based compositions to highlight the themes of doubling, distortion and representation.