In the last instalment of my Top 20 essential Italian movies, we have two mid-1970s classics, from two masters of their field.
Illustrious Corpses (Francesco Rosi, 1975)
In the days before Italian politics was synonymous with media ownership and bunga-bunga parties, Italian political cinema was a global force to be reckoned with. At the forefront of the movement was Francesco Rosi, whose films still stand today as visceral depictions of the Italian political process, which was often riddled with corruption and scandal. Rosi’s key films include Salvatore Giuliano (depicting the famed post-war Sicilian bandit), Hands Over the City (corruption in the building trade which leads to the collapse of an apartment block), The Mattei Affair (the suspicious death of a prominent oil magnet), Lucky Luciano (the later years of the famed gangster) and Christ Stopped at Eboli (with Gian Maria Volonté as novelist Carlo Levi). All are fine films, but Rosi’s finest is Illustrious Corpses, his depiction of a killing spree by an assassin with a judge grudge. Lino Ventura played Inspector Rogas, who is on the trail of a murderer that is targeting the judiciary, apparently avenging a miscarriage of justice. A powerful, engrossing film, based on Leonardo Sciascia’s 1971 novel Il contesto (‘Equal Danger’ in its English language version), it was photographed on location in Sicily, Naples and Rome by Pasquale De Santis, and plays like an overtly politicised police procedural, or a whodunit giallo thriller with a political edge.
DVD distributors take note: this excellent film is not currently available on DVD in the UK or US. It was screened many years ago in the UK on BBC2, as part of a Rosi season in ‘The Film Club’. Leonardo Sciascia’s novel is available however, with Day of the Owl, another crime thriller which was made into a film by Damiano Damiani, with Franco Nero and Claudia Cardinale
Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
The gialli master was back with a vengeance in 1977, as Argento struck out in a bold new direction with the accent on supernatural witchery. Suspiria starred Jessica Harper as Suzy Banyon, an American student who arrives to study at the Freiberg Tanz (Dance) Academy, a ballet school in Germany, which she later discovers is the cover for a coven of witches (including Joan Bennett and Alida Valli) who worship the Black Queen. The first part of Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (followed by Inferno and Mother of Tears), this suspenseful, bloody masterwork is many Argento fan’s favourite. He certainly hasn’t equalled its visceral power since. The film’s shock tactics are greatly abetted by Goblin’s menacing score.
So that’s my top 20. In my opinion, the essential classics of the golden age of Italian cinema are La dolce vita, The Mask of Satan, Hercules Conquers Atlantis, The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock, The Leopard, Contempt, The Gospel according to St Matthew, Castle of Blood, Fists in the Pocket, Battle of Algiers, Blowup, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Big Silence, Diabolik, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Conformist, Violent City, The Marseilles Connection, Illustrious Corpses and Suspiria.
Next week I’ll begin looking at my Top 20 Italian cult movies – the great, the good and the downright odd – in a new thread, RomaDrome.
To read more about Illustrious Corpses, Suspiria and other films by Argento and Rosi, check out my book, Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult