A couple of weeks ago I visited Venice for the second time and in honour of my little trip I thought that I would once again return to my favourite films that have been set, either entirely or in part in this historic and beautiful city.
Normally when you mention Venice, chances are the first things that come into peoples minds is the sun reflecting off the water of the canals, the intimate narrow winding streets and couples enjoying a romantic cruise on a gondola. However there is a darker side to the city that is also known as La Serenissima where our expected and imposed characteristics become inverted and what was once a close, cosy and calm setting suddenly becomes claustrophobic, dangerous and a little unsettling.
Based on this and my own personal opinions this piece will focus more on the horrors that occur in the dark, winding labyrinth of the city. Forgetting about the big budget visits of James Bond and Indiana Jones and most certainly banishing memories of THE TOURIST and the remade THE ITALIAN JOB, here this is the real cinematic beauty and horror of the city. Ones in which the city itself may play a character rather than a backdrop.
- THE EMBALMER (1965)
THE EMBALMER sees a crazed killer on the loose in Venice who flits between donning scuba gear and a monk’s outfit with a skull mask. Fashion is clearly not his number one priority. Much like Dario Argento’s terrible 2009 effort GIALLO, our assailant stalks beautiful women, taking them to his secret lair before killing them. After this however he would also embalm then, thus preserving their beauty and adding them to his collection.
Synoptically it is a deviation from the earlier HOUSE OF WAX although the killers’ hideaway reminds me more of a low-budget take on the home of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA meanwhile finally the canal side setting invites comparisons to Dick Maas’ later Dutch mystery AMSTERDAMNED from 1988.
THE EMBALMER will perhaps be a slight change of pace for many horror fans and is certainly a product of it’s time. Tonally think more THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963) than Hammer horror.
- WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972)
Preceding the arguably more famous DON’T LOOK NOW by a year, Aldo Lado’s giallo benefits from a star cast which includes former James Bond, George Lazenby alongside the beautiful Anita Strindberg and the familiar face of Adolfo Celi. Not forgetting young Nicoletta Elmi who also appears in genre fare such as A BAY OF BLOOD; BARON BLOOD; FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN; LE ORME; DEEP RED and finally when all grown up she appears in DEMONS. Quite a résumé.
Anyway, back to the film. Opening with the murder of a child, this act sets the grim tone for what will follow as we are transported to Venice where estranged father Franco (Lazenby) welcomes his daughter Roberta (Elmi) to come stay with him.
Everything starts off well enough, despite Franco having some very peculiar friends, but eventually his selfishness leads to young Roberta being left playing with local kids and then left on her own out in the street while her father gets busy first with a female friend and then his own work, seemingly forgetting he has his daughter come to stay. Hardly father of the year material.
The inevitable occurs, giving us the title, and Venice descends into a dark and story night, paralleling Franco’s anguish as he sets out to get justice or vengeance for his daughter.
The weather and the colour scheme beautifully represents the mental state and pain of the lead characters, and this remains throughout with a fog enveloping the city as the mystery becomes more and more convoluted and socially expansive. And it is for this reason, and the cinematography by Franco Di Giacomo (IL POSTINO) that I strongly recommend the film.
WHO SAW HER DIE? is overall a solid entry into the giallo genre which manages to please both aesthetically and in terms of plot.
- ANIMA PERSA (1977)
Yet to receive an official English language release (to be the best of my knowledge and searching at least) is this gem from Dino Risi, which is based on a novel by Giovanni Arpino – the man BOCACCIO ’70 and SCENT OF A WOMAN. Hoo-ah.
Starring the enormous talent of Vittorio Gassman (RISO AMARO; KEAN; SCENT OF A WOMAN; SLEEPERS) alongside Parisian Catherine Deneuve (THE HUNGER; POTICHE) and Danilo Mattei, who can also be seen in CANNIBAL FEROX and IRONMASTER amongst others, ANIMA PERSA is a film about loss and much like Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW (which I do seem to mentioning a surprising amount considering it hasn’t made my list), this film uses the city to portray a mental state.
However while Roeg’s film is arguably more ambiguous in terms of story, ANIMA PERSA is a lot more direct and in my opinion it is a lot better for it.
In basic terms the film follows Tino (Mattei) as he does to stay with his Aunt (Deneuve) and Uncle (Gassman) in Venice so that he may begin his studies at an art school. Not long after moving in Tino begins to hear bizarre noises coming from a supposedly empty room in the building. Although presented like a straight-forward maniac-in-the-house situation this story is all wrapped up within the first act leading you wonder what more is to come.
And it is from here that the film really comes into its own as it conceptually deals with not only issues of love and loss but also the duality of man and the fluctuating status of relationships. A must watch for all fans of Italian cinema…if you can track down an English language version.
- THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW(1978)
Also known as SOLAMENTE NERO, the action here actually takes place primarily on the nearby island of Murano, famous for it’s glassworks. On a side note I find Murano much more relaxing to stroll through on account of it’s lower footfall. However director Antonio Bido paints a much darker picture of the island.
The film begins with the body of a schoolgirl being found in a field (what is it with Venetian-led films and child deaths) but no killer being identified. Years later and a young man, Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) returns to the Island in order to see his brother who is now the local priest. This return however coincides with a new spate of murders and threats against the man of God, forcing young Stefano to don the amateur sleuth role and solve the mystery. Which is not easy to do in a small paranoid community…one which is seemingly getting smaller by the day.
Mixing Catholicism, paedophilia and backstreet abortions with a hint of the occult, THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW weaves a tale of suspense and mystery from the very beginning and thanks to it’s almost oppressive atmosphere and a convoluted plot all fans of gialli will get something out of Antonio Bido’s sophomore effort.
- GIALLO A VENEZIA (1979)
Now it would not be a Venetian film round up without mentioning this infamously sleazy entry. Marking the end of the decade, quite literally having been released on December 31st, GIALLO A VENEZIA is the perfect example of the change in giallo from a mystery-focused genre to that of one of sleaze, sex and graphic brutality.
We follow boiled-egg connoisseur Inspector De Paul as pieces together the double murder of a couple. Taking in drugs, perversion and violence GIALLO A VENEZIA became best known for its lurid take on the genre but now thanks to the source materials being cleaned up and put out on Blu-ray I believe that the actual substance (and yes I genuinely believe there is some) behind the shock can finally be appreciated.
Despite what many would say Mario Landi (CRY OF A PROSTITUTE; PATRICK STILL LIVES!) actually proves himself to be a more than competent director as the film manages to display a strong technical awareness alongside some beautiful shots which complement the script by Aldo Serio (WATCH ME WHEN I KILL). However I do have to admit that some of the more salacious scenes are overlong and do serve more to kill any momentum than add any excitement.
That said, although admittedly not executed perfectly, “sex is the key to the mystery” in this film as our Inspector states in-between the scoffing of another egg and so there is no escaping it being a vital component of the story, but it just does not have to be dwelled on for so long is all I am saying.
Moving past that gripe of mine however and regardless on which aspects attract you to this film, be it the sex and violence or simply to check out an obscure giallo that is only now more widely available – you will not be disappointed as there is much in GIALLO A VENEZIA to reward you thanks to its tale of love, lust, depravity and death (not to mention eggs) that just like Venice, has a lot more under the surface if you care to look.
So, there you have it – my five favourite films set in Venice or around it’s islands. A location that provides the perfect juxtaposition between beauty and decay. A place that straddles the line between the intimate and the claustrophobic. It is therefore no wonder so many (good and not so good) films have been set in this most captivating of cities.
Notable mentions also go to ‘DEATH IN VENICE’, ‘DAMNED IN VENICE’, ‘AMUCK!, and of course Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW, all of which are worth your time.
If you are interested in finding out more about the films of Venice you can see my piece in Issue 9 of Weng’s Chop magazine, which for some reason saw me accidentally omit Luigi Cozzi’s enjoyable but somewhat disappointing overall 1989 film PAGANINI HORROR.