Thursday, July 3, 2008

Unholy Mother of Mercy!

The following column is reprinted from the July issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

Strange coupla weeks for film releases, with a slew of big buck popcorn specials (Indy Jones Goes to Skullsville, Sex, Shoes and the City, Waddling Panda Bear, Hidden Dragon, You Don’t Mess With the Sandler Haircut) that I just find hard to spew on about; a batch of minor league crapola (The Strangers, What Happens in Vegas, Made of Honor) for which it is just about impossible for me to generate commentary; and a few oddball efforts (Stuck, The Foot Fist Way, The Fall) that may not make it to good ole RI by the time this dispatch is scheduled to appear in print; which is usually a reason (self-imposed of course) not to toss off a yet another bit of monthly nitcriticism. Obviously, that kinda snaky, wayward, lead sentence is just a rather roundabout way of saying it’s time to break the last standing rule and educate and inform you dear, regular, infinitely wise readers, about a highly intriguing film entitled The Mother of Tears (made by an equally intriguing filmmaker---Dario Argento) that may or may not be playing in our town (although it is and still should be in nearby Boston), by the time this column hits the streets.

Imagine a comely museum employee named Sarah Mandy (played by the director’s daughter, Asia Argento, a cult-fave actress and herself a director) who, after opening an ancient urn, and watching what may indeed be hell cracking loose as an apparently demonic stripper eviscerates a co-worker to the accompanying sounds of that ole familiar choral chanting and a screeching monkey. Her reaction: “Something strange happened to me tonight.” Uh-huh, even in Italy this kind of occurrence ain’t exactly bowling night. But Sarah’s a sturdy one, and not exactly given to supernatural beliefs, even given the random coincidence that a tidal wave of crime and suicides begins sweeping through Rome. Waitaminute! No wonder Sarah/Asia’s cool, she’s the daughter of Dario, and she’s seen this swirl of flamboyant and deep velvet folderol before---its Argento’s patented landscape, a bravura and retrograde brand of horror contempo cinema sorely lacks. The kind of horror movie could cause the most jaded and recently overwhelmed viewer (think Hostel, think Saw, and try not to think of their countless follow-ups and off-shots) wade back into the deeply hued and overtly reddened waters.

Argento, after beginning his career as a screenwriter (among his first credits was a collaboration with Sergio Leone that resulted in the unforgettable Once Upon a Time in the West), the budding filmmaker eagerly jumped into the Italian genre known as “giallo”, a sort of mystery/thriller hybrid best executed by Mario Brava, making an international splash with the wildly over-the-top The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970). Wearing such obvious (and wildly unmatched) influences on his directorial sleeve as the aforementioned Leone, Alfred Hitchcock, Frederico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman), and simultaneously functioning as a major influence on young, hip American moviebrats like John Carpenter and Brian DePalma, Argento plunged into a long markedly uneven career, highlighted by the sensational Deep Red (1975), and the two films (1977’s Suspira and 1980’s Inferno, both readily acknowledged as horror film standouts) that now stand as the first parts of the trilogy that The Mother of Tears apparently concludes.

What is the trilogy exactly about? Maybe that’s best left for a Da Vinci Code scholar to disassemble. There are three main witches and a batch of other witches and corporeal demonic baddies and an ongoing battle both philosophical and visceral being waged between past and present, good and evil. Argento’s craft (and inherent craftiness) owe one huge debt to Hitchcock and his spellbinding storytelling skills---the truth of the matter is that neither the narrative particulars nor the overall story arc really counts---like Hitchcock, the thrill of his movies, the pulse, the hypnotic beat comes in the elegant set pieces, the sodden atmospherics, the tensile camerawork, the ironically life-affirming dollops of gore. Best of all, the filmmaker, when working at the top of his game, delivers this all with overtly stylish gusto.

Despite all this, it’s easy enough to argue that Argento transcends camp, stops just sort of schlock. Sure The Mother of Tears features flapping necks, entrail neckties, eyeball stabbing, mucho gratuitous nudity, blood-ridden orgies, plus gonzo mayhem and nutso destruction. What other way are you supposed to depict cinematic unspeakable evil? While not as elegant or as capricious as his earlier efforts, The Mother of Tears, still makes it as another filmic Argento fever dream, knee deep in EC comic bloodshed and underworld drapery, yet, never, for a minute, to it pitch’s its tenor toward the unrequited nihilism or scurrilous theater-of- cruelty misfirings that are rampant in what passes for a horror film today. No way. Argento remains a master of mood, high style, and the operatic freak-out, and every hardy filmgoer can always use a good dose of that potent combo.

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