Jul 30, 2012

Le salamandre

With his risqué interracial-love-story-turned-homicidal-rampage Le salamandre (1969), Italian auteur Alberto Cavallone (Man, Woman and Beast, Blow Job) announced his potent and steadfast arrival in the world of Italian cinema. On top of making Cavallone a hot name (at least as far as producers were concerned) for the one and only time in his filmmaking career due to the film’s surprisingly successful monetary gain at the box offices (earning 500 million liras),  Le salamandre also launched the (albeit brief) careers of lead actresses Erna Schürer (Summer Love, Scream of the Demon Lover) and Beryl Cunningham (Il dio serpent, The Black Decameron). Despite its various scenes of gratuitous nudity (which seem quite tame by today’s standards) and preposterous scenarios of lipstick lesbian pseudo-love, Le salamandre – which is mostly set at a post-colonial Tunisian vacation spot – is fundamentally a staunchly defiant socio-political work with a biting and acrimonious message targeting the white colonial oppressor. The film opens with a conspicuously consternating dream-sequence featuring a young black man being violently beaten and eventually castrated by three good ol’ white boys on a serene and scenic beach. This whole scenario is witnessed by black American female protagonist Uta (Cunningham) as she hides in terror behind a bush like a wild bushwoman. Not long after seeing one of her brothers literally losing his manhood, Uta is welcomed with literal open-arms in a absurdly sympathetic manner by her white female lover Ursula (Schürer); a Swedish-American photographer with lady-licking proclivities. Apparently, this direful and sardonically symbolic dream-sequence, as well as the rest of Le salamandre was inspired by Cavallone’s reading of French-Algerian philosopher Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary work The Wretched of the Earth (1961); a volatile pseudo-Freudian/Marxist tirade that blames African male impotence on the (apparently) psychologically-emasculating brutality of colonizing white man. Considering the epidemic of rape and AIDS in most modern Africa nations, as well as starvation-stirring population booms, one can only assume the white devil’s super sterilizing powers have only swayed since the decolonization of the dark continent. Despite the sometimes anachronistic nature of the film, Le salamandre does offer some seemingly moldy food for thought that most filmmakers in our toddler-like times of authoritarian political-correctness would barely consider, especially in regard to the still somewhat prevalent phenomenon of master-slave relationships between whites and blacks.

Starting on the first draft of Le salamandre in 1967 with collaborator Sergio Lentati, the film – ultimately for commercial reasons – became notably more erotic and increasingly less political when the finished product was completed, yet the political subtext is still quite potent and an intrinsic attribute of the work. In a most antagonistic manner, Cavallone described the message of Le salamandre as follows: “You came to see this film just to see two naked women… you have a colonialist mentality. Nothing’s changed, the only way to change things is to kill you.” Indeed, Le salamandre ends on a murderous and sadistically psychosexual note that is bound to offend certain superficially liberal folks who see the antidote to centuries of hostile race relations as skin-deep physical love and miscegenation. The character of Uta learns everything she needs to know about whitey through her sexual relationships with Ursula and later psychologist Henri Duval (Antony Vernon); an intellectually inquisitive middle-aged man who randomly meets the twosome on the beach (when Ursula is topless, of course), thus eventually forming a torrid and tumultuous threesome. However different each white lover may initially seem to Uta, she discovers that most of them view her as nothing more than an exotic and sexually stimulating novelty of sorts and not as an individual with any inkling of personal merit. While watching Le salamandre one learns that Ursula 'rescued' and brought up Uta from being a penniless nothing to a renown international model. Ursula also fails to hide her overwhelming feeling superiority and sense of ownership over Uta, as if the black girl owes her body to her rescuing and ever so resourceful master. Initially, Uta is afraid of Henri and his psychoanalytic speculations, but she eventually comes to realize some less than flattering things about herself and her melanin-deprived lovers via these theories, to the eventual detriment of the good doctor. Cavallone also spliced in real stock-footage of executions as ghostly symbols of the colonial past that Uta seems to feel in a metaphysical manner (it seems Cavallone envisioned the mystical 'supernatural Negro' idea long before films like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance were ever created), but fails to affect her perfectly comfortable and always hedonistic white compatriots. It is only when all the discommodious emotions brewing within her soul become intolerable that Uta is able to collect herself and take action in a seemingly unbecoming style that is no less audacious than the ending featured in Melvin Van Peebles’ revolutionary work Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). Like Van Peebles' socially influential and economically successful film, Le salamandre was not intended as a ‘feel good’ exploitation work, but as a serious ‘call to arms’ of the violent nation-imploding persuasion.

Despite its abrupt and unduly unpleasant ending (at least for white folks), Le salamandre also concludes with the revelation by Cavallone that the viewer is watching a mere work of fiction created by a filmmaker in a fashion not unlike the one featured at the conclusion of fellow Italian auteur filmmaker Federico Fellini’s late masterpiece E la nave va (1983) aka And the Ship Sails On. Although one of Cavallone’s earliest works, Le salamandre is also certainly one of his most complex, mixing discordant phantasmagorical dream-sequences, hyper-realist stock-footage of authentic mass murder, and sleekly stylized scenes of sensational lesbian erotica in a film that – in terms of execution and overall quality – totally eclipses the director’s later Africa-based post-colonial work Afrika (1973). Unsurprisingly, few of the filmgoers who originally saw Le salamandre upon its original premiere cared for its keen socio-political complexity. Although a film producer offered Cavallone the job of directing another film in the spirit of Le salamandre starring Florinda Bolkan, the Italian auteur declined and instead directed Dal nostro inviato a Copenaghen (1970) aka From Our Copenhagen’s Correspondent; a patently anti-American work about two U.S. army deserters who try to survive while taking refuge from the Vietnam war in Copenhagen. Of course, one of Alberto Cavallone’s greatest attributes as a filmmaker was his uncompromising artistic vision, even if he sometimes failed in his cinematic experiments, thus Le salamandre is an especially must-see work as it comes as one of the Italian filmmaker’s most adept efforts. 

-Ty E

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