Thursday, July 22, 2010

Obscure Oddities: Giulio Questi's ARCANA (1972)

One of the great joys of being a Video Junkie ® is the fine art of the discovery. We wade through so much junk (see this entire site) that it pays off when you see something really good. But the best is when you see something so out there that it knocks your socks off. You know a movie so bizarre that when you finish it you wonder what the hell you just saw. The kind of flick when you describe it to your friends they think you lying and instead relaying something out of a fever dream. Such is the case with Giulio Questi’s ARCANA.
If you’re reading this blog then Italian director Questi should be a familiar name. My only exposure to him was within the last few years when I watched the positively surreal DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968). I think it is safe to say it is the only film to feature a love triangle against the backdrop of prostitute murders and the high tech chicken farming industry. Well, I should say only legal film to feature such things. Obviously the film is one of a kind. I hear his western DJANGO, KILL! (1967) does for the spaghetti western genre what EGG did for the giallo subgenre. So, naturally, when I saw a grey market dealer offering up his rare ARCANA, I decided to take a look.
Now this is one tough puppy to summarize, but I’ll give it a shot. ARCANA tells the story of widow psychic Rose Tarantino (Lucia Bose), who runs her business in a slummy apartment building in Milan. Mrs. Tarantino is a bit of a charlatan while her son (Maurizio Degli Esposti) is the real deal, born with the power to see into the lives of their clients. Naturally, she exploits this to groups of folks who come into be “healed” by his touch. The son – whose name I don’t ever believe is mentioned – is one odd kid though as he likes to make faces in the mirror, cross dress and dabble in the real black arts. When client Marisa (Tina Aumont) becomes pregnant, she goes to Mrs. Tarantino for a talisman. Now the mother is content on creating a fake charm, but the son insists on making a real one. When he presents it to Marisa, she collapses and falls into convulsions. The son then wanders around the city, placing his homemade trinkets everywhere and visiting the underground subway rail where his construction worker father was killed by a train. The film culminates with Marisa coming to Mrs. Tarantino to get an abortion, which turns into a big get together for her clients. The end result is the son having a dwarf whisper into his ear as he unleashes chaos all over the city with the military gunning down folks.
I can practically hear you saying WTF? The funny thing is the paragraph above is just an attempt to put everything into some kind of digestible plot. Honestly, Questi doesn't seem that concerned with the plot and more interested in staging some really weird stuff. There are so many bizarre on goings here that the film almost becomes hypnotic. The “normal” strange stuff includes the incestuous nature of the mother/son relationship (she bathes him and they sleep in bed together). The “slightly out there” stuff includes the son threatening the mom in bed with a knife to tell him about a real talisman and this causes plates to fly around the kitchen. Now the “Alejandro Jodorowsky would approve” stuff includes things like the children in the hallway that quack and bow to an egg (see pic to the left) and later bite an old man to death; the dwarf who brings a bridal dress to the abortion and whispers in the son’s ear; an legless man collecting disability and then saying to the son, “I’m not really disabled. It’s a trick” before some cops come and grab him; and the son building a shrine in his bedroom with string and photos he’s stolen from clients. The absolute show stopper though is the montage after the son makes the talisman that features a man playing a violin as Questi crosscuts between the images of some men hoisting a donkey onto the roof of a church (WTF?) and Mrs. Tarantino dancing zombie-like in her kitchen with ten other folks before she pukes up some frogs. Mrs. Bose – later seen as Elisabeth Bathory in THE LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE (19733) – is quite a trooper as she coaxes and ejects several live frogs from her mouth (see pics below). Let’s see Angelina Jolie do that for her art! An epic WTF moment that should be seen by cult film devotees worldwide.
So as you can see, ARCANA doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense but that is truly the film’s appeal. You won’t be figuring this one out like INCEPTION unless you have Questi sitting right next to you filling you in on what it is all supposed to mean. Rumor is that the film’s original running time is 111 minutes and that some prints remove 25 minutes from the film. The print I saw runs 104 minutes and, gambler that I am, I’m willing to bet that extra 7 minutes ain’t going to make things any easier.

Moments of Clarity:

1 Reactions:

  1. Just watched this and found it rather fascinating. The titles at the beginning of the film claim that it will not be possible to make sense of all that follows, but - referencing Italy's historical embraces of fascism and anarchism - Questi and Arcalli do seem to be attempting to make a statement about how easy it is to dupe/hypnotize the public into believing/doing/following just about anything/anyone. I think the "flying donkey" might actually fit into this argument. Early on, the boy's mother indicates her belief that her mother was a witch so powerful that she could make a donkey fly, yet - in the end - her death is bookended by scenes of villagers accomplishing exactly that without using any magic at all. I'm sure there are many other possible readings of this, but that's what came to my mind.

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