Nov 4, 2013

The Year of the Cannibals

Out of all the female filmmakers who have ever lived, probably none has displayed a greater propensity for concocted curious celluloid works that transcend the usually fine line between cultivated art cinema and tasteless and sensationalized celluloid trash than Italian auteur Liliana Cavani (The Berlin Affair aka Interno berlinese, Ripley's Game) with her first international hit Il portiere di notte (1974) aka The Night Porter—a somber S&M-flavored proto-Nazisploitation flick of sorts—probably being the best example of this. Undoubtedly, out of all of Cavani’s cinematic works, The Night Porter has left the deepest impact, even if it is a fundamentally flawed work that wallows just as much in now-cliche fetishism as it does artistic pretentiousness. Of course, sexual subversion and artsy fartsy-ness are not the only things that have influenced her films because, like many, if not most, European filmmakers of her generation, Cavani was seduced by the gospel of Marx and his anti-Occidental philosophical disciples. Apparently raised in a working-class household, Cavani had stern antifascists for parents (though she ironically attended “Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia” film school, which was inaugurated by Benito Mussolini) and was fed Engels, Marx and Bakunin via her maternal grandfather. Starting out making political documentaries for RAI like Storia del III Reich aka History of the Third Reich (1962–1963), Cavani eventually made what is arguably her most blatantly socio-politically conscious work, The Year of the Cannibals (1970) aka I cannibali aka The Cannibals, which confirmed her solidarity with the far-left student movements that infected Europa like cancer during the late-1960s. A work only rather marginally influenced by the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles in that it stars a chick named Antigone who wants to bury her brother and ultimately faces a tragic end, The Year of the Cannibals is a quasi-pop-art-inspired dystopian drama and political allegory set in a nefarious neo-fascist state where it is illegal to both pickup and bury corpses, thus the streets are littered with corpses that, for whatever reason, will not decompose. Starring pleasingly petite Swedish actress Britt Ekland (The Wicker Man, Beverly Hills Vamp) in the lead role as Antigone and superlatively swarthy and scrawny French arthouse star Pierre Clémenti (Belle de jour, Steppenwolf) as a seemingly half-retarded Christ-like prophet named Tiresias, The Year of the Cannibals is outmoded ‘pop revolutionary’ cinema with an admittedly catchy soundtrack from Italian maestro Ennio Morricone that reminds the viewer why the hippie movement died as quickly as it was misbegotten. Described by various critics upon its original release as “Catholic from the left” (a label that both director Cavani and co-writer Italo Moscati rejected), The Year of the Cannibals does, indeed, have a rather repellant essence that could probably be described as pseudo-Pasolini-esque ‘commie Catholicism’ as a revolution-raging work of the positively pussycore persuasion that quite blatantly pleas for acts of sissy subversion against a super sadistic state that sics SS-like German Shepherd dogs on beautiful Swedish chicks and even tortures the son of the prime minister for petty acts of rebellion.  Like a philistine take on Anti-Clock (1979) directed by Jane Arden and Jack Bond meets George Lucas' THX 1138 (1971) as reworked as a commie CliffsNotes take on Sophocles, Antigone is just one of many reasons why so many European arthouse flicks on the late-1960s/early-1970s are long forgotten, as radically repellant far-left politics and poppy aesthetics make for bizarrely bland bedfellows.

 A gang of young grad school children spot a young Christ-like figure laying on the beach and being young kids, they fiddle with the corpse, thus resulting in their rather abrupt deaths via machine gun by neo-gestapo goons lurking in the bushes. Indeed, in the world of The Year of the Cannibals, it is illegal to fiddle with the dead, let alone bury corpses, yet the mysterious figure on the beach, Tiresias (Pierre Clémenti), is not actually dead (though he moves in a rather zombie-like manner), thus the killer cops had ultimately shot too soon, killing a bunch of tiny tots for no reason, thus setting the anti-authoritarian tone of Cavani's film. Meanwhile, nice yet naïve chick Antigone (Britt Ekland) wants to bury the body of her fallen brother, but it is illegal, so she goes to her boyfriend Emone (Tomas Milian)—the son of the Prime Minister (Francesco Leonetti) of the neo-fascist state—for help, but he is not much help, so she goes on her less than merry way. Luckily, while eating at a fantasy sub-futuristic restaurant, Antigone runs into strange stranger Tiresias who, being all Christ-like and anti-usury and whatnot, steals a piece of fish, which rather alarms the waiter. Thanks to Antigone, Tiresias’ tab is paid and the two develop a strong sense of solidarity despite the fact that the mumbling messiah only speaks indecipherable gibberish. Ultimately, Tiresias helps Antigone lay to rest her belated brother, but it does not stop there as the act of subversion leads to the two burying more bodies. Of course, Tiresias and Antigone inevitably become fugitives for their acts of criminal kindness, which eventually leads them to running naked in the streets and being chased by a bloodthirsty Alsatian Wolf Dog. Eventually, the two unclad rebels find sanctuary in a Catholic church and absurdly go incognito by wearing priest outfits (indeed, Ekland has a tough time pulling off the whole pedophile priest thing), even visiting a mental institution where pseudo-priestess Antigone tells a patient, “they’re castrating you.” Of course, eventually Tiresias and Antigone are caught, incarcerated, tortured, experimented on, and paraded on television as radicalized enemies of the state. On TV, Tiresias is described as, “like a type of ‘Mowgli,’ Rudyard Kipling’s hero…The legendary child who was raised by animals in the jungle.” The prick newscaster also tells the audience, “Memorize this face. It is the face of a man…who steals corpses from the state.” Indeed, as much as one would want to, it is hard to forget the supremely swarthy frog face of Pierre Clémenti. When Antigone’s preppy boyfriend Emone discovers his lover has been brutalized, he confides in his Prime Minister father, but he proves to be no help, ultimately writing off his son's girlfriend as a fugitive criminal. In an act of desperation and pussy protest, Emone attempts to pick up a corpse and is subsequently arrested, thus fueling his belief that his rebellious behavior is righteous and whatnot. When Emone’s father asks his son what is the meaning of his seemingly nonsensical actions, Tiresias responds while standing imprisoned in a jail cell, “Their corpses serve as examples to avoid others. They shouldn’t be touched,” and adds, “I want to turn into an animal… Anarchic. Eccentric. Rebellious. Antisocial. Delinquent. Atheist. Homosexual. They’re all words from your catalogue. All of them.” Meanwhile, Tiresias is let out of prison and a visibly bruised and abused Antigone is paraded through the streets by militant soldiers. When Tiresias attempts to embrace Antigone, she is riddled with bullets and the hippie messiah reacts impotently by attacking a politician, thus resulting in his death as well by machine gun. Of course, as director Liliana Cavani wants the viewer to know, Antigone and Tiresias’ actions were not in vain as The Year of the Cannibals concludes with hordes of dirty and unkempt hippies picking up and burying corpses, thus demonstrating the revolutionary spirit is in the air and the neo-fascist state’s days are numbered. 

 Riddled with quasi-commie cliché upon quasi-commie cliché upon quasi-commie cliché, The Year of the Cannibals is nothing if not culturally corrosive counter-culture cinema of the thankfully outmoded sort that demonstrates that even with her early films, director Liliana Cavani had a knack for making the most deracinated Italian films of her era, even with all of its conspicuously ‘Catholic’ themes and all. Mildly entertaining in part due to the lackluster yet paradoxically iconic performances from leads Britt Ekland and Pierre Clémenti, as well due to its strangely poppy soundtrack by Ennio Morricone (notably, the catchy song “The Cannibals”), The Year of the Cannibals—when watched from a contemporary perspective—is ultimately a testament to the fact the hippies failed and eventually became like the soulless authoritarian establishment they hated so dearly, which can also be said of Cavani, whose curiously gimmicky combination of subversive sex and allusions to classical literature have become a mainstay of Hollywood, hence why she would later go on to direct a work as conspicuously contrived as Ripley's Game (2002) starring John Malkovich. Of course, The Year of the Cannibals also failed to predict the real legacy of the student movement, presenting them as righteous and  morally pristine peaceful protestors, when, in fact, it really degenerated into coldblooded murder and senseless terrorism as personified by the Red Army Faction in West Germany, not to mention the Years of Lead period in Italy during the late-1960s through early-1980s when a series of terrorist bombings, political assassinations, kidnappings, and other crimes were committed by the lunatic left-wing autonomist movement, almost plunging Guidoland into a civil war. In its seemingly pathological depiction of Britt Ekland being emotionally and physically brutalized by caricatured neo-gestapo agents (one calls her a “beautiful slut”) in extremely stylized scenarios that are essentially like choreographed dance sequences, The Year of the Cannibals expresses the sort of (sado)masochism that would become an innate ingredient of Cavani’s aberrant auteur signature, which is probably her greatest strength as a filmmaker. Indeed, inspiring exceedingly effete mainstream liberal Roger Ebert to describe her film The Night Porter as, “nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering,” means that Cavani has to be doing something right. Of course, The Year of the Cannibals is certainly no The Night Porter, nor even a Beyond Good and Evil (1977) aka Al di là del bene e del male, but instead, a positively passé celluloid artifact from a time when a youthful collective of conforming anti-conformists absurdly believed a utopia was awaiting them as soon they carried out Marx, Trotsky, Marcuse or some other Judaic pseudo-messiah’s shabbos goy game plan.

-Ty E

No comments: