Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sorcery, Surrealism, Socialism: ARCANA


Arcana (1972)
Director: Giulio Questi
Rating: 7.5 / 10

[It's hard to talk about a film like Arcana without massive spoilers - be warned!]

Arcana was Giulio Questi's final feature before he took a decade-long hiatus from the world of film. Its roots in low-budget horror conceal the fact that it's really a surrealist endeavor with a charged political message. This is the kind of film that seems to fall into the crack between arthouse and grindhouse; it's often too trashy to fit into the former and too opaque for the latter. What sets it above similar films is that it's willing to eventually drop its mask and go all-out, ending in a place that's closer to Buñuel than Bava.

The film is divided into halves, the first of which is relatively straightforward and focuses on a fortune teller named Mrs. Tarantino (played by the renowned Lucia Bosé), who reads palms and tarot cards for wealthy clients. Even more popular are the group séances in which she works a circle of customers into hysterics and then "channels" a spirit into their midst. Her adult son (Maurizio Esposti, who goes nameless throughout the film) is her reluctant assistant. Esposti's character is frustrated by his mother's profession, particularly the fact that she's content to fake her way through most of her magic and leech off the rich. He's convinced there's untapped potential in her rituals, and experiments alone in his room with bizarre rites involving pictures he steals from the clients and donkey teeth he finds outside their tenement.


There are hints that even weirder things are to come. A written message before the opening credits says that the film isn't a story, but a game of cards, and that the viewer should play smartly in order to win. (With the connection to tarot, does that signal that we're watching a prediction of the future?) Another prominent oddity is the pack of kids constantly running around the Tarantinos' apartment building. They taunt visitors with animal noises, bow down in front of an egg, and even occasionally crossdress. (I'd say it was just a case of boyish looking little girls, but with Esposti walking around in his mom's heels later on the film, I think there's some deliberate resonance there.) Things take another turn for the strange when the son's rage at his mom makes plates fly around the room and tarot cards begin to deal themselves. It's clear that the power at his disposal isn't just charlatanry like his mother's. It's often frustrating how much the first half of the film seems to allude to and how little it's willing to explain. Thankfully much of the tension is released in an incredible blast when the second portion of the film begins.

After a particularly violent incident with his mother in which he forces her to give up her magical secrets, the son runs wild with his new power and begins to unleash it upon the city. A largely dialogue-free sequence follows him through the streets as he performs new rituals in public areas. Where his mother's magic was strictly regimented, his feels organic. It draws not on old systems of rules or props, but the detritus of nature and the city. He hangs everyday objects from strings: bones, cans, a tube of toothpaste, chicken feet, a harmonica. He pulls weeds from the cracks in the sidewalk. The old magical structures comforted and healed those who were willing to pay for them. This new magic is derived from the city, and its aim is to change the city. While the son flees police and causes chaos, his mother undergoes an even stranger  transformation of her own. In what's by far the most surreal and remarkable portion of the film, she spits up live frogs in her kitchen as a black-clad family does a shuffling dance to a droning folkish violin song. (There are even a few cuts to the violin player himself walking alone through country hills.) It's an abrupt change from the slow pace of the first hour of the film and is fascinating, even if many of its images remain impenetrable.

The class dynamics that previously crept into Questi's work also become more apparent in the second half of the film. Early on, we learn that the family's father was killed while working a construction job in the subway beneath the city. Now the son's magic causes subway workers to assault the subway cars, terrifying the wealthy riders. The son recruits the semi-feral kids to assist him in tormenting the suited businessmen who walk the streets. After luring one man into an abandoned hallway (by flirting with him no less) he sics the pack of kids on him to swarm over him and bite him. While the son's magic is dissolving the old societal boundaries imposed on class and sexuality, his mother is busy overthrowing the traditional family structure by performing abortion rituals on a young pregnant newlywed. By the end of the film, chaos has engulfed the city, bursts of gunfire echo through the air, and military police run through corpse-littered streets. It's a bold ending that many genre flicks would be afraid to touch.


There's still lots of room for interpretation though, and regardless of how you assemble the pieces, there are bound to be a few that don't fit. Things I haven't mentioned so far: the film's obsession with the human body - from the pictures of hands and eyes that the son collects in his early rituals to a scene near the end where a dwarf whispers the names of internal organs into his ear. What about the donkey that's repeatedly shown being hoisted into the air next to a rural building? The lone violinist? The massive Oedipal complex between mom and son? There's more than enough strangeness in this film to go around. Parsing all of it may be impossible.

For that reason, Arcana is probably a better film in retrospect than it is while you're watching it. It teased me for nearly an hour with little payoff, but just when I was about to give up on it, it erupted and caught my interest again. Getting to that point is a challenge though. Cinematographer Dario Di Palma is more subdued here than in Death Laid an Egg, so while he's often carefully emphasizing his subjects to underline the various thematic foci of the film, there isn't the visual dynamism of his previous work. It's also interesting that the score is less experimental compared to that of Death Laid an Egg. Composed by Romolo Grano and B-movie/giallo veteran Bertolo Pisano, it's often really catchy and surprisingly poppy (you should definitely listen to the whole thing via the video at the bottom of the article). When it's necessary, it lapses into unnerving territory, most noticeably in the previously mentioned violin sequence.

Arcana isn't easily approachable, but it fits right in as the final piece of Questi's triptych of feature films. While all of his work falls within the confines of typically lowbrow genres, he's never content to play by their rules. He seeks to use them as tools to approach a deeper political goal as opposed to telling stories (which Arcana essentially states right up front). Arcana isn't a perfect film by any means, but it's an experiment that's interesting and outlandish enough to be worth seeking out.

Enjoy the soundtrack:

No comments:

Post a Comment