Between 1961 and 1968, Elio Petri established himself as one of the most distinctive voices of Italian post-neo-realist cinema. His 1961 feature debut L’Assassino is an often-overlooked example of the filmic giallo. As Mikel J. Koven notes:
The word giallo simply means “yellow” and is the metonymic term given to a series of mystery novels that the Milanese publisher Mondadori began producing in the late 1920s. These paperback novels, often translations of English-language novels by writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, and Edgar Wallace, were presented with vibrant yellow covers […]. The term giallo [therefore] acts as a metonym for the entire mystery genre. (1)
Based on the fact that the film was an adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Koven argues that one of the first cinematic gialli was in fact Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1942), usually better known, of course, as perhaps the first neo-realist picture. While there were several other examples of the giallo in the 1940s and ’50s, it was not until the 1960s and ’70s that the genre really began to flourish with a series of films by directors such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Petri himself – too often pigeon-holed as a political filmmaker because of his remarkable 1970s output – also made a significant contribution to the genre. L’Assassino is the story of Alfredo Martelli (Marcello Mastroianni), a philandering antiques dealer in his mid-30s suspected of murdering his wealthy older lover. The giallo plot allows Petri to craft a merciless portrait of a character worried less with the evidence stacked against him and more about police scrutiny of his personal life.
After working in several different registers – existential drama (1962’s I giorni contati), science fiction (1965’s La decima vittima) and mafia thriller (1967’s A ciascuno il suo) – Petri returned to the giallo with Un tranquillo posto di campagna (A Quiet Place in the Country, 1968). Released in November 1968, the film is arguably Petri’s most experimental feature; a restless, feverish psychological drama, a “critical study”, the director notes in a 1980 interview, “of a painter who wants to practice his art the way artists used to centuries ago. He doesn’t realise however, that this kind of art is dead.” (2) The artist in question, Leonardo Ferri (Franco Nero), is an abstract painter who moves to a quiet country house to escape the tumult and temptations of the big city only to find that this rural idyll is haunted by a ghostly presence. A young Countess died there during the war, in more than mysterious circumstances. Assailed by hallucinations, Leonardo is visited regularly by his wife Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave) who, much more pragmatic in her outlook, encourages her husband to start work again before his reputation starts to slip. “Nowadays”, Petri argued, “the only way of life is money but [Leonardo] doesn’t want to admit this. On the other hand [Flavia] understands it perfectly well.” (3)
Shot in the same year as Performance (which wasn’t released until 1970), it is hard not to notice similarities between Petri’s film and that of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell. Both are reflexive ruminations on identity, sex and death, both feature fragmented narratives and both make use of luridly expressionist colour. While Roeg and Cammell craft a gangster film/pop star vehicle hybrid – Petri fuses the giallo with the psychological ghost story. Echoes of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and Bergman’s Persona (1966) are unmistakable, while the film also looks forward to the work of Argento in its frenzied formal daring.
Petri had originally wanted Jack Nicholson to play the neurotic artist but Franco Nero, two years after his breakthrough role in Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), took on one of his most demanding roles alongside real-life partner Vanessa Redgrave (the two had met on the set of Joshua Logan’s 1967 film Camelot). American pop artist Jim Dine provided Leonardo’s canvases with avant-garde improvisational ensemble Nuova Consonanza contributing musical pieces to the film’s soundtrack.
Like 8 ½, Un tranquillo posto di campagna opens with a nightmarish dream sequence. We see Leonardo tied half-naked to a chair, his wife playfully toying with him. The couple’s sex game then turns violent as Flavia stabs repeatedly her husband while in a bath. Petri takes the viewer out of this dreamscape only to plunge us – through hand-held camerawork and a dissonant, atonal soundscape – straight back into Leonardo’s increasingly disturbed psyche. As with Guido (Mastroianni) in Fellini’s film, Leonardo suffers from a creative block, becoming increasingly obsessed with discovering the truth about the long-dead Countess. In this respect, Petri’s painter is a variation on the classic giallo protagonist, characterised by Koven as “an innocent person, often a tourist [that] witnesses a brutal murder that appears to be the work of a serial killer. He or she takes on the role of amateur detective in order to hunt down this killer, and often succeeds where the police fail.” (4) Having moved away from his normal surroundings, Leonardo is a tourist of sorts and – although he doesn’t actually witness the murder – he is tormented by it. When it is revealed that the Countess was an erotomaniac, it further piques Leonardo’s interest. Paradoxically, her ghostly presence comes to represent a vital eroticism that the painter wants to somehow recapture – a task that Petri sees as doomed to failure in a consumerist society.
As with L’Assassino, therefore, the director uses the familiar tropes of the giallo to ask uncomfortable questions of modern society. While in his earlier film Petri probes into what he sees as the empty values of young wealthy bourgeois, in A Quiet Place in the Country he examines the role of the artist; the inescapable dichotomy between art and commerce.
A Quiet Place in the Country is screening at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival on Friday 2 August and Wednesday 7 August.
- Mikel J. Koven, La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, The Scarecrow Press, Oxford, 2006, p. 2.
- “Il ritratto critico di un pittore che pratica l’arte come la si praticava negli altri secoli, senza rendresi conto che quell’ arte è morta.” Petri interviewed by Aldo Tassone in Tassone (ed.), Parla il cinema italiano, vol. 2, Il Formichiere, Milano, 1980, p. 249.
- “Oggi l’unico motivo di vita è il danaro, ma il pittore [Leonardo] non vuole confessarselo. La moglie [Flavia] invece l’aveva capito benissimo.” Petri in Tassone, p. 249.
- Koven, p. 4.