Jan 10, 2020

The Skin (1981)

Aside from her fundamentally flawed SS sadomasochistic danse-macabre Il portiere di notte (1974) aka The Night Porter and to a lesser extent her dystopian sci-fi flick I cannibali (1970) aka The Year of the Cannibals and Nietzsche horn-dog hagiography Al di là del bene e del male (1977) aka Beyond Good and Evil, Italian auteuress Liliana Cavani—a filmmaker that is always more interesting when she is more intemperate artsploitation than plodding arthouse—has never been a filmmaker I seriously respected yet she certainly won me over with a recent viewing of her exceedingly eccentrically epic Curzio Malaparte adaptation La pelle (1981) aka The Skin.  Curiously feeling oftentimes more Fellini-esque than Fellini in terms of combining the post-neorealist humanism of something like I Vitelloni (1953) with the surrealist situational travelogue-like approach of Roma (1972) and a sort of primordial dago decadence à la Fellini Satyricon (1969), not to mention a weird inexplicable monster fish scene that recalls La Dolce Vita (1960), the film is, in my obscenely obnoxious opinion, Cavani’s greatest contribution to the art of cinema in terms of apocalyptic intrigue and downright sheer sleazy entertainment. Indeed, quite unlike the filmmaker’s other films which, not unlike those of cosmopolitan commie Bertolucci, are completely deracinated and rarely guido-esque in a flagrantly gommbah fashion like the films of Pietro Germi and Ettore Scola, this wayward WWII epic—a delightfully degrading tribute to human debasement and desperation—is shamelessly and insanely Italian in its essence to the point of bordering on full-blown whacked-out wopsloitation à la Scola's Ugly, Dirty and Bad (1976) aka Brutti, sporchi e cattivi. In fact, the film is the ultimate ‘antifascist’ flick in terms of completely contradicting the Mussolinian ideal and portraying the Italian people, or at least the Neapolitan people, as a superlatively shameless people without pride or scruples.

 Indeed, in the film, mothers literally sell their little boy’s buttholes to pedo-prone Moroccan Muslim invaders and fucked fathers hold group shows where American soldiers get to take turns fingering a rare teenage virginal vagina. Likewise, Sicilian slags—a less than gorgeous group that invades Naples and causes the drastic depreciation of dago pussy for everyone—are so desperate for the dollars of darkie GIs, who are quite stereotypically only interested in fucking blonde white women, that they wear blonde wigs on their overly punished sub-prole pussies. Of course, desperate times call for desperate measures, but somehow I seriously doubt that the all-the-more-demolished krauts had reached such ungodly extremes of virtually transcendental whoredom, even if the kraut capitulation resulted in the unwanted births of various Günther Kaufmann bastard types. In short, The Skin—a sometimes vertiginously vulgar film full of venal vulgarians that manages to find a certain assuredly aberrant joy in the collective degeneration of a sub-piss-poor peoples—exemplifies the sort of scathing cynicism, shameless honesty (paradoxically combined with grandiose dishonesty), and ‘unflattering humanism’ that guidos do best. Forget Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), Cavani’s odious odyssey of obscenity dares to plunge the viewer into the true dark disgusting depths of despair and destitution that plagued the defeated peoples of the Axis Powers in a manner that no Teutonic filmmaker has ever dared to touch despite the New German Cinema obsession with WWII and its virtually post-apocalyptic aftermath.  Still, Cavani’s underrated flick makes for a great double feature with Rainer Werner Fassbinder's classic The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).

 While The Skins is uniquely unflattering in its depiction of Italians, it is strangely ‘pro-American’ in a sort of cynical backhanded Italian sense where the dumb uncultivated yank is ridiculed for his naiveté. Indeed, as Cavani stated in the featurette At the Frontier of the Apocalypse in regard to the source writer’s view of dumb yanks, “Malaparte sees the Americans in THE SKINS as a young and naïve people, which is somewhat true, and he’s very attached to them. He has a love for them. There’s a love for this quality, as if they were still clean, somehow untouched by sin, by the sin of war, the sin of butchery, by these things. He sees them in a positive way, as a person who has a positive view of the world would. And this comes out. He sees them as naïve because a city like Naples is the complete opposite of the American mentality. It can’t get any more different.” As to the right sort of symbol of strong puritanical American naïveté, Cavani felt that Burt Lancaster—a cultivated American that already contributed greatly to guido cinema via masterful Luchino Visconti flicks like The Leopard (1963) and Conversation Piece (1974)—was the right mensch for the job, or as she explained, “…I needed an American that didn’t seem malicious at all. That really represented the idea of the American liberator. In that sense, ariose, with traits of goodness. Rough, but rough like a father.” Of course, as the same singularly stoical actor that portrayed the strangely paternal and harshly heroic GI lead Major Abraham Falconer of Sydney Pollack’s underrated WWII flick Castle Keep (1969)—another apocalyptic Europa-in-ruins epic of eccentricity that combines tragicomedic realism and surrealism—Lancaster was the perfect man for the job, but great Latin lover Marcello Mastroianni shines no less as the lead.  Speaking of Pollack’s flick, Mike Nichols' similarly overlooked dark war dramedy Catch-22 (1970) seems like an obvious influence on The Skin, especially in terms of its playfully preternatural depiction of American GIs and unhinged depictions of guidette whores, among other things.

 As The Skin fleetingly makes reference to as if to absolve the writer of guilt, Curzio Malaparte—a half-German by birth that was born Curt Erich Suckert but a 100% Italian in terms of effortless charm and unscrupulous spirit—was originally a card-carrying fascist to the point where he was a vocal intellectual supporter of the rise of the National Fascist Party and Benito Mussolini, but he was too uncompromisingly individualist to properly play the game and opportunism eventually led him to switching sides to communism and Catholicism after WWII (though one would not realize that by watching the film).  In Cavani’s fucked flick, Malaparte comes off seemingly like a sort of spiritually decadent aristocrat of spirit that is easily able to adapt to the most ungodly and atrocious of circumstances, including being elegantly passive-aggressively hospitable to an uncultivated conquering army made up of largely blond-haired and blue-eyed soldiers that are quite generous when it comes to terms like “wop” and “greaseball.” For example, although ostensibly working from a pro-fascist perspective while a war correspondent on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, Malaparte’s oftentimes uncensored articles acted as the genesis for his unclassifiable magnum opus Kaputt (1944) that is more of a razor sharp amoral literary masterpiece of despair and destruction than a tribute to any sort of fascist ferocity or Mussolinian martial prowess. While Kaputt managed to achieve official Catholic Index librorum prohibitorum (‘List of Prohibited Books’) status and the author was once a hardcore atheist that later supported the atheistic commies, he was even trying to scam god at the end of his life by getting close to the Catholic Church. As to his contributions to cinema aside from being the debauched brain behind The Skin, Malaparte made one attempt at directing with the largely forgotten Il Cristo proibito (1951) aka The Forbidden Christ. Additionally, the writer's legendary house ‘Casa Malaparte,’ which he once proudly showed-off to legendary German general Erwin Rommel, appears in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (1963) aka Contempt.

In The Skin, one certainly gets the sense that Malaparte—a man with a pseudonymous surname that means “evil/wrong side” (and is also a play on Napoleon’s family name ‘Bonaparte’ which in Italian means ‘good side’)—is the ultimate cultivated conman as a effortless charmer that knows how to tell a person to eat shit without even causing the slightest bit of offense yet you cannot help but love him, so naturally Mastroianni is the perfect man for the role. After all, not unlike Malaparte, Mastroianni was a sort of unofficial ambassador for the Italian people and Italian culture, which is exactly the thankless job that Mastroianni-as-Malaparte performs in The Skin—a film that probably deserves the distinguished honor of being the mostly uniquely unflattering tribute to Italy in all of cinema history.  Indeed, if you thought Spike Lee did a spectacular job of goombah-bashing in films like Do the Right Thing (1989) and Summer of Sam (1999), you have not been bombarded with rotten garlic that Cavani's film reeks of. Speaking of Lee, his hopelessly Hollywood-esque WWII flick Miracle at St. Anna (2008) penned by Judaic mulatto James McBride turns the Italian campaign into a negro fantasy with cardboard characters that includes a preposterous love triangle between an Italian partisan chick and two black GIs instead offering a honest look at the horrors and whores of war like Cavani's flick.

 In Teutonic dandy auteur Werner Schroeter’s brutally beauteous The Reign of Naples (1978) aka Nel regno di Napoli—a sort of Pasolinian neo-neorealist epic where communism and Catholicism battle for the soul of Italy while the people wallow in impoverished misery—a woman sells her daughter’s virginity to a negro sailor for a bag of sugar in what ultimately seems like a completely unbelievable scenario. Admittedly, I found this scene, which is apparently historically accurate, to be fairly disturbing despite Schroeter’s laconic approach to the material, yet it is nothing compared to the sheer and utter human depravity and abject desperation of the fittingly titled The Skin where human flesh of the most intimate sort is much cheaper than beef and pork. Indeed, as Malaparte (Mastroianni) somberly states, “We lost the war. Women and children lost if more than anyone else.” The year is 1944 and, aside from 112 German POWs that are being ‘fed’ by a scheming Camorra mobster named Eduardo Marzullo (Carlo Giuffrè), there are no more fascists or Nazis in Naples, or so do members of the United States Fifth Army learn as they arrive in town with the expectation of doing some serious fighting and instead find a virtual city-sized whorehouse. Led by the largely benevolent yet no-bullshit General Mark Cork (Burt Lancaster)—a man that hates his own elites and finds it easy to like a deceptively affable chap like Malaparte—the army and various other foreign soldiers certainly treat the city as one big giant bordello as the locals aggressively attempt to sell gash for cash lest they starve.

Aside from being hired by General Cork to broker a deal for the 112 German POWs who are being intentionally overfed by mob boss Marzullo with the intent of scamming more money out of the Americans, Malaparte is also assigned to act as the chaperon and sort of cultural tour guide of a bitchy blueblood female aviator named Deborah Wyatt (Alexandra King) who also happens to be the wife of a U.S. senator and is thus absurdly made an honorary Airforce officer. A supposed ‘Queen of the Sky’ that flies into Naples as part of a nonsensical publicity stunt that, much to General Cork's chagrin, is backed by both Eisenhower and FDR, Mrs. Wyatt—a superficially cultured dame whose beauty is only transcended by her hubris—is an uptight cunt that immediately demonstrates a sense of racial superiority over the lowly swarthy guido people that she has ostensibly come to pay tribute to. Of course, being a man of subtle almost-Svengali-like seduction talents that oftentimes relies on projecting a deceptive image of adoring obsequiousness, Malaparte effortlessly gets his revenge on Mrs. Wyatt when she least suspects it by forcing her to virtually bathe in her own sanctimonious hypocrisy. Indeed, Malaparte brings Wyatt to a virtual white slave market where Italian mothers pimp their prepubescent sons to Moroccan soldiers and the upperclass lady naturally completely loses it when she witnesses an Islamic pervert examining the anuses of these poor forsaken boys, thus resulting in her losing a not-all-that-small segment of her hair after the swarthy sexual savage takes a swing at her with a dagger (notably, said sand savage then proceeds to showoff his ‘white woman hair trophy’ to his equally thrilled savage comrades). Needless to say, the voyage to Italy does not end well for Mrs. Wyatt as she crashes her plane after Mount Vesuvius erupts and is subsequently the victim of a gang-rape scenario by her own American GIs in an unsettling scenario where the flying diva is brought down to the same level of abject degradation as the Neapolitan people that she previously looked down on in a scenario that would probably provide catharsis to certain guido viewers. 

 Aside from General Cork, Malaparte also befriends a young naïve but well-meaning GI named Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall) who does not think twice about partaking in as much as guidette pussy as he can possibly penetrate, or so one would assume from all his bragging.  In fact, when a Judaic comrade named Goldberg complains, “Are you crazy? Every nigger this side of the Atlantic has been in them wop broads. You forget them movies about what happens to your pecker if you get the clap?,” Jimmy boy simply mocks his fellow GI for sticking to pathetically masturbating to porno magazines despite having unlimited vaginal opportunities in Naples. Despite partaking in prostitutes and even obtaining an Italian girlfriend (Rosaria Della Femmina), Jimmy eventually unexpectedly falls in love with a young Italian peasant girl named Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) after encountering her selflessly comforting a dying GI whose guts and intestines are literally hanging outside his stomach. Needless to say, Jimmy suffers a mental breakdown of sorts upon discovering that his beloved Maria Concetta is part of a sick sideshow attraction as the supposed ‘only remaining virgin in Naples’ where he father charges GIs to finger her hymen-intact honeypot. In fact, Jimmy is so disturbed by this quasi-incestuous scenario that he angrily uses his fingers to break Maria’s hymen and then proceeds to wipe the fresh blood on her father-cum-pimp’s face in disgrace. Luckily, Jimmy finally gets over it and decides to bring Maria Concetta home as a war bride, or so he tells a less than enthused Malaparte who is probably not proud about being the member of a defeated nation where all the hot young girls are desperate to leave. Of course, despite the degradation that she suffers at the hands (or, in this case, fingers) of horny GIs, Maria Concetta is one of the lucky ones because, as Malaparte explains to Jimmy in regard to the prostitution situation in Naples, “Well, you know, the price of human flesh is below that for beef or pork. A week ago, you could get a 20 year old girl for 10 dollars. Now she’d be worth no more than four … bones and all. The Sicilian girls flooded the market. They’re older, so they cost less.”  Needless to say, the Sicilian streetwalkers are depicted as the most grotesque and ill-shapen of pussy-peddlers.

 As an ex-fascist turned reluctant pro-American that seems to simply opportunistically support whoever is winning, Malaparte may not seem like a serious man of principle but as he proudly proclaims to Miss Wyatt and some dinner guests, “The real Italian flag does not show three colors but the male organ. Morality, Honor, Family, the cult of religion are all there, between the legs.” In short, Malaparte is a covert pagan of sorts that has experienced what happens when civilization is stripped away and untamed libido reigns. Indeed, more than anywhere else, defeated nations reveal that sex sells and that everyone is willing to sell it if they are desperate enough, especially when conquering armies can simply pillage pussy for free as some of the GIs attempt to do in the film. Somewhat subversively, the film also dares to depict the racial character of sex and how certain groups are more hopelessly depraved than others. Indeed, whereas various Muslims are depicted as boy-buggering barbarians and “sodomite who likes sunflowers,” negroes are depicted as sort of anti-alchemists that love defiling golden hair. In fact, civil rights saint Emmett Till’s father Louis Till was executed by the U.S. Army on July 2, 1945 after taking part in the murder of an Italian woman and the rape of two others while surviving in the Italian Campaign as an American soldier (notably, great modernist poet and fascist propagandist Ezra Pound, who was imprisoned alongside the colored lust killer, mentions Till in lines 171-173 of Canto 74 of his Pisan Cantos). Of course, in general, the American GIs, especially of the Anglo-Saxon sort, come out looking as the least sexually debauched. Needless to say, aside from the love affair between Jimmy Wren and Maria Concetta, all the sexual behavior depicted in The Skin is simply grotesque and that this completely loveless lust exposes human-beings as being nothing more than bestial animals, albeit worse as at least (some) humans have a conscience and thus should know better. In that sense, war and it its aftermath is where man is at his most unflatteringly atavistic, or so one discovers while watching The Skin

 Naturally, The Skin would not be the artsploitation war film par excellence if it did not conclude in a highly sensational apocalyptic fashion where a Boston Brahmin-like bitch crashes her plane and faces a world of pain in the form of rape-happy GIs and is forced to learn a little humility for once in her luxurious life. Undoubtedly, Mrs. Wyatt’s nightmarish night in Naples almost seems like the auteuress’ revenge as the American aristocrat is previously depicted going on a hateful anti-Italian rant and spitting the following acidic vile at protagonist Malaparte, “I hate your attitude, you Latin snob! Know-it-all! All of you! Backwards! Scummy! Oily! Hairy, dark, greasy gigolos! Wop! Wop! And you’re laughing at me? You can stick your flag right between your legs, up your ass!” Rather regrettably, Malaparte does largely prove to be a know-it-all as far as his patently pessimistic perspective is concerned and the film even concludes with the hapless hero becoming hopelessly dejected after witnessing a happy Italian peasant man celebrating the American occupation being completely crushed by an American tank in an allegorical scene that more or less sums up the cultural effect of the American occupation on Italy. Needless to say, it is no coincidence that the film concludes with the arrival of the U.S. Fifth Army in Rome through the rather paradisiacal Appian Way. As Malaparte somberly states to his young American ‘friend’ after witnessing the crushing of a fellow goombah by an American tank, “You can go, Jimmy. You are the winners.” 

 In terms of its absolutely scathing and sardonic sentiments that are in stark contrast to the heavyhearted humanism of classic Italian films like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952) and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), The Skin is like the anti-neorealist film par excellence and a tastefully tasteless tribute to maestro Malaparte's almost otherworldly cynicism in relation to the American so-called liberation of Italy. Indeed, as Peter Bondanella noted in his classic text Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (1983), “Cavani investigates a moment of Italian history already familiar from many well-known neorealist films; however, she captures it from an entirely different perspective. In place of the nobler values of sacrifice and courage neorealist films celebrate, Cavani forces us to reconsider the dramatic story of occupied Naples as the relationship between the victor and vanquished. The director implicitly protests the cultural hegemony of America over Italy that began during the last year of the war. Malaparte’s grotesque realism survives from the novel […] The romanticism associated with the war by those who fought on the winning side, or who participated in the Resistance, is removed from Cavani’s story, and what remains is a tale of survival, of saving one’s skin in the midst of hardship, starvation, depravity, and uncertainty […] Cavani reminds us, human history is made at the expense of human sacrifice, literally from our hides.” As American half-wop Abel Ferrara’s rather depressing documentary Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (2009) reveals, it seems that Naples has yet to completely recover from the Second World War, but then again this is a historically degenerate place that, as depicted in The Skin, there is, among other things, an old ‘womb envy’ tradition of ‘gay birth’ where a gay guido pretends to go into labor and give birth to a sort of mock baby boy with a large cock after nine months of ‘gay marriage.’ Of course, this absurd ‘gay birth’ celebration is organically Neapolitan and should stay that way as it would be a shame if it replaced by American trash like Queer Eye and Drag Queen Story Hour in terms of representing gay goombah identity. 

 Despite being assuredly antifascist, The Skin does follow in a certain distinctly Italian tradition as exemplified by the proto-fascist aesthetic perversity of Malaparte and his contemporary Gabriele D’Annunzio who, on top of writing decadent Nietzschean literary, was the first ‘Duce’ and a great national war hero that Benito Mussolini stole most of his best ideas from. Of course, Cavani’s most (in)famous film The Night Porter is even more of a reflection of this sort of perverse fascist aestheticism, but I digress. In my opinion, what The Skin ultimately demonstrates is that Cavani is, at best, a sort of inordinately cultivated exploitation auteur that, due to her gender and propensity towards controversial subject matter, scammed her way into the arthouse, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, even in a film like Francesco (1989)—the second film of the director’s career-spanning St. Francis of Assisi trilogy—where Cavani attempts what Paul Schrader has described as ‘transcendental style,’ the almost absurdly amoral female filmmaker cannot help but include a scene where a completely unclad Mickey Rourke, who curiously portrays the titular lead, literally fucks snow. As for anyone that knows anything about Nietzsche or his philosophical weltanschauung, Beyond Good and Evil manages to make John Huston’s obscure cinematic disaster Freud: The Secret Passion (1962) seem like a respectable biopic by comparison. As for her Jun'ichirō Tanizaki adaptation The Berlin Affair (1985)—a film depicting a bizarre love triangle between a Nazi diplomat, his wife, and the daughter of a Japanese ambassador—it is about as erotic and aesthetically potent as a mid-1990s Showtime softcore flick, but I digress. 

Undoubtedly, there is no sharper contrast to the films of Cavani and novels of Malaparte than the writings of Italian ‘super fascist’ Julius Evola who denounced the stereotypical dirty debauched dago types that The Skin so unforgettably depicts. Indeed, in a chapter entitled ‘Latin Character—Roman World—Mediterranean Soul’ featured in his book Gli uomini e le rovine (1953) aka Men Among the Ruins: Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist, Evola makes a dichotomous comparison between two very different Italian types. Indeed, whereas the ‘Roman’ type is stoic, noble, disciplined, loyal, hierarchal, and orderly, the ‘Mediterranean’ type is histrionic, amoral, undisciplined, disloyal, resentful, disorderly, and proudly sexually ill-restrained. Needless to say, Evola believes that the Mediterranean type has come to define the Italian people, or as the magical baron once wrote, “The qualities of the ‘Roman’ type represent the positive limit of dispositions hidden in the best parts of our people, just as the qualities characterized as ‘Mediterranean’ correspond to the negative limit and the less noble part of it; these limits are also found as components in other peoples, especially in the ‘Latin’ group. However, we must realize that too many times behaviors resembling the ‘Mediterranean’ type have been identified, especially abroad, as typically Italian, and that the ‘Mediterranean’ component appears to have prevailed overall in Italian life following World War II.” Of course, The Skin and most of Cavani’s other films confirm Evola’s unflattering thesis. 

 When reading Evola’s remarks on Nietzsche, it almost seems absurdly ironic that Cavani—a woman that, not unlike fellow Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, certainly had a German obsession of sorts—would even dare to direct a biopic about the Teutonic philosopher yet, at the same time, some of his ideas also strangely support the Cavanian style of filmmaking and a sort of ‘Italian’ romanticism in general. Indeed, as Evola wrote, “Nietzsche himself warned against every morality that tends to dry up every impetuous current of the human soul instead of channeling it. The capability of control, equilibrium, continuity in feeling and in willing must not lead to a withering and mechanization of one’s being, as seems to be the case with some negative traits of the central-European and Anglo-Saxon. What matters is not to suppress passion and to give to the soul a beautiful, regulated, and homogenous, though flat form; but rather to organize one’s being in an integral way around the capability of recognizing, discriminating, and adequately utilizing the impulses and the lights that emerge from one’s deep recesses. It cannot be denied that passion is predominant in many Mediterranean Italian types, but this disposition does not amount to a defect, but rather to an enrichment, provided it finds its correlative in a firmly organized life.” Of course, it can be argued that, in terms of the artistic life she has lived, Cavani somewhat ironically achieved this lofty Evolian ideal. Additionally, The Skin undoubtedly proves that Evola, Malaparte, and Cavani share similar sentiments in regard to the racial differences between Italians and Anglo-Saxons. It is certainly hard for me to imagine some uptight WASP stating in regard to his daughter’s virginal vagina “It doesn’t bite” while exposing during some superlatively sleazy sexual sideshow attraction, but such is Cavani’s singularly sick cinematic realm of depraved dago sexual abandon and sodomic desperation. 

-Ty E

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