Mar 27, 2015
Chilean-born Renaissance mensch Alejandro Jodorowsky may be Hebraic by blood but his films and persona certainly demonstrate that he has somewhat of a Latin spirit, so I was not all that surprised when I recently learned that he collaborated with some avant-garde guidos on a film. Indeed, the Italian ‘metaphysical horror-thriller’ Ritual - Una storia psicomagica (2013) aka Ritual - A Psychomagic Story co-directed by first-time feature filmmakers Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi was not only influenced by Jodorowsky’s autobiographical novel turned film The Dance of Reality and his psychotherapy technique known as ‘psychomagic,’ but also features the El Topo (1970) director in a small role as the ghost husband of a widowed ‘good witch’ of sorts. A sort of sadomasochistic arthouse flick that puts special emphasis on savagely sensual tableaux and self-described ‘atheist mystic’ Jodorowsky’s pseudoscientific psychomagic mumbo jumbo, Ritual is part exercise in style and part tribute to the cinematic and spiritual journeys of one of the world's greatest and most eccentric cult filmmakers. There is no question that Italy used to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, producers of films and auteur filmmakers as the land of Fellini, Pasolini, Rossellini, Antonioni, Visconti, and Bertolucci, among countless others. Likewise, Guidoland was also one of the greatest and most eclectic producers of horror masters ranging from the truly revolutionary pioneer Mario Bava to the artful and surrealist giallos of Dario Argento to the compulsively subversive ‘artsploitation’ avant-gardists like Giulio Questi and Alberto Cavallone to the gorgeously grotesque celluloid splatter of Lucio Fulci to the unhinged ultra-violence of major misanthrope Ruggero Deodato yet, like with most contemporary cinema in the boot-shaped Mediterranean nation, Italian horror is now a cinematic wasteland that, at best, can only try in vain to compete with old glories. Admittedly, I probably set my expectations absurdly high for Brazzale and Immesi’s debut Ritual, as I hoped it would prove to be a sign of a new spark in Italio-horror and would represent a sort of rebirth for the genre in Italy, yet I ultimately was not totally disappointed as the film had enough perverse pulchritude and morbid memorable moments to keep me interested from beginning to end. Most importantly, Ritual—a work that depicts an abusive anti-romance that only gets all the more worse when the female protagonist is forced by her brutal man-child boy toy to get an abortion after unexpectedly getting pregnant—is a work that offers a rather incriminating window into a dying nation with a dwindling indigenous birthrate and an almost completely bankrupt culture. Indeed, aside from possibly Asia Argento with works like Scarlet Diva (2000) and more recently Incompresa (2014) aka Misunderstood and to a lesser extent Paolo Sorrentino with obscenely overrated works like La grande bellezza (2013) aka The Great Beauty, very few Italian filmmakers have dared to depict the dispiriting spirit that has led to Italy becoming something akin to a barely living museum and tourist attraction that relies on the reputation of its great past in the hope of somehow making it into the future. In Ritual, the protagonist and her malevolently misogynistic boyfriend have no future, neither as a couple nor as individuals as they are decidedly damaged individuals whose ‘complimentary’ flaws ultimately make for a deleterious and completely killer combo of the savagely schizophrenic and superlatively spiritually sick sort. Although it might not exactly explain why things are the way they are in Italy, the film captures a forlorn and forsaken zeitgeist of spiritual and sexual dysfunction where marriage and parenthood are an absurd anachronism, mindless hedonism and self-indulgence are the name of the game, and spirituality is the tool of the senseless or senile.
Ritual begins with something that one might describe as a degenerate ‘dating ritual,’ as it depicts somewhat young and reasonably beautiful protagonist Lia (played by Désirée Giorgetti, who also appeared in the Jörg Buttgereit co-directed horror anthology German Angst (2015)) walking around a decadent yet sterile ‘modern art’ museum while being seemingly stalked by a discernibly unsavory guido in a fancy suit named Viktor (played by Ivan Franek, who appeared in Sorrentino’s The Greaty Beauty), who eventually corners his voluptuous prey in a room projecting an experimental film. As the viewer soon learns, Viktor is actually Lia’s bourgeois bad boy boyfriend and he is a staunch sadomasochist who seems to be only able to become sexually aroused when abusing his girlfriend in a variety of verbal and physical ways. Since Lia is a rather atypical Italian chick as a highly neurotic, introverted, and passive dame, Vik the dick has no problem making her his perennial vulnerable victim, thus the couple's sex life is rather active, if a bit one-sided. As a dress designer, Lia has a somewhat artistic sensibility that seems to go hand-in-hand with her discernibly delusional perspective of her relationship with Viktor, who only gives a shit about himself and will do every and anything to get his jollies and that especially includes using his girlfriend as a virtual blowup doll. Viktor oftentimes surprises Lia with random gifts, but that is because he is a scheming psychopath and the items are really for his own amusement as demonstrated by the fact that he mainly gets her BDSM contraptions and sexually revealing clothing. Viktor literally rules over everything Lia does, including what she eats, even force-feeding her sushi even though she cannot stand raw fish. Of course, the more Lia cries and begs for mercy, the more turned on Viktor gets, as he thrives on abuse as if his life depended on it. Not surprisingly, Lia regularly goes to a psychiatrist named Dr. Guerrieri (Cosimo Cinieri), but she adamantly denies that Viktor abuses her or is in any way a problem, even pseudo-proudly proclaiming to the head doc in a rather hysterical way regarding she and her superlatively sadistic beau, “He and I are meant to be together.” The progeny of a decidedly deranged mother who she indubitably takes after, Lia was raised by her maternal aunt Agata (Anna Bonasso) and when she was only 9-years-old she suffered a tragic event while at her home as a result of having her first period at such a young age, thus causing her to become convinced that she was literally cursed by the devil, even calling her first menstrual cycle “a curse,” hence her rather bizarre masochistic sexual habits.
Since Viktor is a psychopath, he is always stalking Lia and when he spots her talking with a gay fashion designer named Flavio at a coffee house, he later interrogates her, accuses her of cheating on him, calls her a “slut” repeatedly, bends her over a kitchen table, and more or less rapes her in a pathetic demonstration of his less than potent sexual prowess in an absurdly brief coitus session that lasts less than a mere minute. Assumedly as a result of the quasi-rape or one of their aberrant erotic escapades, Lia becomes pregnant and Viktor predictably responds to the seemingly good news by forcing her to get an abortion that results in the protagonist suffering an ominous nightmare involving her bastard beau performing an abortion on her where he pulls out a bloody log instead of a fetus. Soon after the abortion, Viktor decides to pick up a prostitute with a glaringly fake blonde wig that looks like a cracked out tranny but he ultimately decides to scream in the streetwalker’s face and kick her out of his car instead of paying her for pussy, so he goes back home and is startled to find Lia unresponsive in a bathtub full of blood as a result of a fairly serious suicide attempt. While Lia survives her senseless attempt at self-slaughter as a result of Viktor getting her help, she wisely decides to abruptly leave her boyfriend and move in with her beloved aunt Agata so that she can recover from the trauma caused by having an abortion.
During the first night that she sleeps at her aunt’s large 18th century luxury chateau in the Veneto countryside, Lia wakes up to the sound of a woman singing outside, so she goes outside on her balcony to investigate and spots a beautiful lady that seems to be about the same age as the protagonist. Not only does Lia begin believing that this mysterious woman is a wicked witch, but she also thinks that she has ‘stolen’ her aborted baby. Notably, Lia’s aunt Agata is as ‘psychomagician’ whose magic rituals include doing such things as having a seemingly gay boy set a picture of his father on fire so that the ashes can be mixed with wine to be drunk as a means to purportedly cure the gay boy of his overwhelming fear of his dead daddy. In another absurd magic ritual, Agata has a young negress wear ‘whiteface’ while her white friend wears ‘blackface’ so that the former can feel more integrated into quasi-white guido society. Not surprisingly, good witch Agata’s husband is Alejandro Jodorowsky aka ‘Fernando’ and although he is dead, he visits his ladylove at night in bed where he provides her with psychomagic advice and flirts with her in a bizarre manner by stating things like,“While I’m caressing you, I see you’re getting old. I love both you…and your death.” Of course, it is alluded to that Agata practices spectrophilia and what better person to engage in it with than Señor Jodorowsky. Meanwhile, loony Lia befriends two imaginary children that call themselves ‘Elves’ named Nicola and Gaia who only speak in song and in nursery rhymes. Naturally, the ‘Elves’ freak the hell out of Lia when they randomly give her a ‘new age’ style tarot card reading and sing as a duo, “...there’s a child who is her baby, it’s her baby who’s crying loudly, turn the card and here comes death.”
Of course, Lia’s spiritual recovery is completely compromised when loser loverboy Viktor randomly shows up at the family chateau and acts quite vindictive to the protagonist after initially putting on a ‘good boy’ act to get in her good graces so that she would not immediately kick him out when he initially showed up unannounced. Indeed, at one point, Viktor holds Lia’s head under water in a bathtub—a place she typically seeks solace in as especially exemplified in a scene where she bathes with a bunch of goldfish—to scare her into thinking he is drowning her and then hatefully states, “You shouldn’t have left me like that.” Naturally Viktor absolutely hates Agata, complaining to Lia that he thinks “she’s an old fool” and “This house gives me the creeps.” Of course, one cannot completely blame Viktor as he suffers a nightmarish hallucination at the house where he slowly slices his face up with a shaving razor in a scene that seems to be a direct tribute to Guido-American Martin Scorsese’s pre-fame short The Big Shave (1968). Viktor also becomes rather perturbed when he walks in on Lia caressing and singing to an antique baby doll as if it is a real live infant. As Viktor proudly states, “I don’t want children. Children are only a burden,” so naturally he is not going to tolerate his girlfriend fawning over a children’s toy as if it is a living and breathing baby. Ultimately, Agata attempts to rid Lia of her post-abortion sorrow by staging a magic ritual that involves the protagonist pretending to give birth, but of course sadist Viktor, who gets increasingly drunk, intolerant, and violent as the film progresses, ruins it and ultimately pays a hefty price in the end that results in his death and the loss of what little bit of sanity his girlfriend had left.
If you’re ever dreamed of an ambitious celluloid marriage between Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Argento-esque retarded female hysteria, and a Jodorowsky-esque approach to genetic inheritance and spirituality, Ritual is probably the film for you, but it is also certainly one of those somewhat disappointing works that is not exactly as delectable as it sounds, as a film that demonstrates that the two filmmakers know their cinema history but are still at a formative stage in their careers and still need to find their own idiosyncratic voices (that is, if they each have one). While the film is seemingly infinitely superior to anything that fallen maestro Argento has directed over the past two decades or so, it is ultimately too conspicuously contrived, ‘Jodorowsky chic,’ and ‘too-cool-for-school’ for its own good as a work that feels like a celluloid fashion show with buckets of blood, S&M fetishism, and goombah meathead misogyny thrown in for good measure, but then again the film also says a lot about contemporary Italian culture and society in general. Set in a sub-opulent realm populated by flashy dressing Hightalian beta-males posing as alph-males who can only get their cocks hard by beating a woman, as well as barren childless women who will use their pussy for pretty much anything aside from procreation and giving birth and who do not think twice about getting abortions even though they want to keep the baby but are too weak and passive to say no to their boyfriends, Ritual ultimately makes Italy seem like a giant disco club in Sodom where the wisest and most level-headed people are elderly witches with dyke hair-cuts and where anyone under the age of 60 is a perennial child with some sort of serious sex disorder, which acts as a sort of aberrant allegory for why they would never procreate. Personally, I find Jodorowsky’s so-called ‘psychomagic’ to be just a more exotic and attractively packaged version of the old kosher carny Freudian con and certainly one of the most unappealing aspects about the filmmaker, so for someone else aside from him to incorporate this brand of dubious metaphysical psychotherapy into the film seems like a patently pathetic gimmick to me, but I cannot say that I was unhappy to see Mr. Topo actually appear in the film. For those expecting Brazzale and Immesi’s film to be the sign of a new Renaissance in Italian horror cinema, they will surely be sadly disappointed, but I’m sure Jodorowsky fanboys and fans of unclad and unhinged guidettes will surely find something to like about it, as I surely did. Indeed, Ritual is certainly no masterpiece, but it at least demonstrates that Italians know how to bring style and sex appeal to just about anything, including rape, abortions, and suicide. There is also a sort of cryptic moral message in the film. Indeed, according to Jodorowsky himself, he was the product of his father raping his mother, but unlike the protagonist of Ritual, who aborts her rape-baby, the Chilean Israelite was actually born so one should always think twice about getting a baby vacuumed out of their cunt as it might cause you to go crazy with murderous schizophrenia and/or prevent the birth of a future filmmaking genius.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 1:34 PM
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