On a particularly hot day, the drudgery of a Catholic high school class is interrupted by the sounds of a woman on a roof next door, screaming and threatening to jump. The students run to the window to watch, ignoring their teacher’s reading of Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli: “Look out, the dead are coming. The sad, pale dead.” A young priest, out of uniform, attempts to talk her down. The commotion wakes Giulia (Maruschka Detmers), who groggily walks to her balcony. In an extended close up, the woman seems to awaken from her gibbering. It’s as though she’s had some transference with Giulia, who barely holds back tears.
The cinema of Marco Bellocchio is filled with such tense outbursts, driven as they are by a spritz of Mediterranean heat and sexual guilt. His films are seeped in Italian history, depicting corrupt ideologues and a perverse spin on Catholic justice. Bellocchio’s 1986 film Devil in the Flesh (Diavolo in corpo), newly restored and streaming for the first time on Ovid, is perfectly representative of the great Italian director’s outlook.
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One of those schoolboys, the sharp featured Andrea (Federico Pitzalis), stalks Giulia to a courtroom, where her fiancée Giacomo (Riccardo De Torrebruna) is standing trial for his involvement in a vaguely defined leftist organization. Here, Bellocchio establishes the theatre of Italian institutions: as dozens of prisoners line cages while reading newspapers in Devil in the Flesh, Giulia notices a couple making love. “Let them finish!” she yells as fighting erupts. From the court, Bellocchio hard cuts to Giacomo’s apartment. Andrea stands within an empty bedframe, sexuality his own cage as Giulia leaps about in the nude. With education and the legal system imprisoning the pair, they respond by — what else — embarking on an intense sexual relationship.
The opening 20 minutes of Devil in the Flesh are rich with visual metaphors. With a high-strung score, the film gestures to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Bellocchio is in thrall to the Catholic filmmakers: when Andrea’s father, a psychiatrist with a striking resemblance Javier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall, discovers their affair, Giulia appears naked in his office to taunt him. His libidinal fantasy is played so straight one could blink and take it for reality. Having collaborated with Michel Piccoli a few years earlier on A Leap in the Dark (Salto nel vuoto), Bellocchio’s debt to Luis Buñuel is so striking that it even plays as pastiche. His innovation, then, is when he gives over to sexually explicit images to create an intensity of painful emotions.
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Giulia’s encounters with Andrea in Devil in the Flesh are wracked with guilt. Detmers controls each scene, running the gamut of expression through long single take close ups that give the viewer access to her internal turmoil. As revelous as Bellocchio is in filming sex, it always comes as a pathetic afterthought to these more intense psychological moments. After Giulia tries to call off the affair, she visits Giacomo in prison. Previously, they have only communicated via a police intermediary, during the public forum of the court by passing an ice cream through bars. As Giacomo recites a poetic love letter, Giulia unzips his fly and jerks him off. It is as though she has no other vocabulary with which to express love, as though her love, really, is meant just to be a muse for her man’s art.
This conflict boils up through Giulia’s continuation with the simping but ultimately privileged Andrea. In a terrifying night time sequence, he breaks into her room; a moment accompanied by Herman strings. They make love in an extended long shot, breeze and moonlight landing on the blue sheets. Later, Giulia threatens to cut off his penis with eerie glee, hovering over like Irma Vep herself while silent music piano accompanies their play. Bellocchio seems ambivalent to the power of erotics by centering Detmers’ face, only ever happy for a minute. In a piece of graphic sex notable enough to make it to Devil in the Flesh’s Wikipedia page, Giulia performs unsimulated oral sex on Andrea. The good folks at Wikipedia neglect to mention that throughout, Andrea is reciting a story about Vladimir Lenin’s arrival in Switzerland, “the land of watches.” A light satire of the leftist politics that Giulia’s own fiancée is locked up for, this scene reiterates that in both the Catholic Church and within the political sphere, the function of the female body is little more than a vessel for thoughts to flow.
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The spontaneous, unsentimental way that these scenes unfold recalls the ultra, dreamlike realism of a third Catholic filmmaker, Maurice Pialat, who was operating in the 1980s, at the height of his powers. Its effect in Devil in the Flesh is to reveal the characters’ inability to express an inner life. Instead, society asks them to be defined by their beauty. The aesthetics of Italy trap them. When Giulia uses her hand as an ashtray, it is clear: her body, her personhood, herself, is nothing next to a piece of 100-year-old furniture.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.