Judge Daryl Loomis learned the hard way not to touch dead things.
Death to anyone who touches the rebels' bodies.
It surprises me that, in a world of cinema desperate for intellectual property, producers don't mine the ancient Greeks more often. Everything that makes good storytelling is all right there: sex, war, incest, regicide, those plays are dripping with things audiences want. Plus, because of their simple staging, they're really easy to adapt and modernize. They don't come around very often, but I get excited when they do and Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) does the trick with I Cannibali, her adaptation of Antigone, the great Sophocles tragedy of love, war, and family.
Facts of the Case
In this alternate version of Milan, the 1968 protests failed to provoke any change and, instead, the rebels lie dead on the streets. By the new martial law, anyone caught trying to bury the bodies will fall alongside them. Antigone (Britt Ekland, Machine Gun McCain), though, grieves her dead brother, Tiresia (Peter Clementi, Belle de Jour), and schemes to find a way to give him a proper burial. That's when she finds a partner in crime in Emone (Tomas Milian, The Big Gundown), a foreigner who is apparently the only one to see the tragedy here, and together they become bandits, running from the law while doing what their government won't.
Liliana Cavani is an unabashedly political director who never shied away from making movies of a greater difficulty than most. She started this right out the gate with I Cannibali, which may well have been a shocking sight to Italian viewers when it was released. Those protests were only months behind them and, while telling a familiar story, she presents an absolutely scathing critique of her government. The Italian government was never all that keen of taking criticism in the first place, but it's relentless. Often horrifying, but sometimes terribly funny, the film shoots right to the heart of the problem with authoritarian rule.
The adaptation is pretty faithful to Sophocles' original work, though Cavani amplifies the horror by making the Italian citizens nonchalantly walking over scores of bodies as they go about their daily lives, unaffected by all the death that surrounds them. In the original, the end of a civil war makes the king decree that the rebel Polyneices will lie dead on the battlefield in dishonor, but the core of the story is pretty much the same.
The simplicity of that core story makes it easy to adapt it to any situation and it works very smoothly in Cavani's alternate Italy. The first two thirds of the story are dense and deeply political; Cavani presents a terrible, strange world in which street cleaning trucks hose the blood from the streets, leaving the bodies to rot, while a priest cants catechism in front of it. Antigone, a bourgeois teenager, bucks the traditions that she has grown up with and willfully, blatantly breaks the law. Her family is never shown, but she is likely disowned; her life is over, but her principles trump her life, so she takes the risk.
Britt Ekland is great at getting her character across with very few words, which is perfect for both the story's Greek tragedy roots and its surrealism, and Tomas Milian is the perfect foil for her as Emone. His antics, the usual charming Milian stuff, and the longer his presence is felt, the more the movie takes a comic turn. The duo runs around, changing outfits and making trouble while being chased by the cops. It's actually pretty funny, at least compared to the first part, and then the final few minutes come, which really put a damper on things. The moments quickly escalate until Antigone and Emone are made into martyrs; dying, but changing the world with their actions. As the final part of the trilogy, Peter Clementi's character is dead throughout I Cannibali, but for fans of his, he's there.
Cavani did a brilliant job with the adaptation and does just as well behind the camera. The movie has a stark but beautiful style, with many scenes looking as much like posed paintings as filmed footage. The cinematography by Giulio Albonico (Gang War in Naples) has a metallic silver quality that is constantly reflecting off the wet, muddy earth. The scale of the buildings makes the whole thing feel claustrophobic and it feels really good. To top it off, the movie features a sharp, jagged score by Ennio Morricone (For a Few Dollars More) that puts just the right punch in at just the right time. It's one of his stranger scores and one that I'd really like to have.
I Cannibali is sometimes a difficult movie and sometimes a funny one, but it's always worth seeing. Cavani is an underrated director who can create caustic satire, solid comedy, and (in other movies, at least) bizarre eroticism. She's one of the best directors of her generation and, as seen here, she showed her considerable talents from the earliest stages of her career.
I Cannibali arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Raro Video and it's a fine release. The 2.35:1/1080p transfer is fantastic, with excellent color and sharper detail than has ever been present on the screen before. Black levels look great and flesh tones are next to perfect. The grain structure is strong and there is no trace of digital enhancement at any point. This is a fantastic restoration that helps make the movie shine. The sound mix doesn't hurt the experience, either. While just a single channel PCM mix, it performs very well with decent dynamic range and great clarity throughout. The dialog is always crisp and Morricone's score sounds great in the mix.
There's really only one substantial extra on the disc, but it's pretty good. A near half-hour interview with Cavani gets deep into her career and her politics. She's always an engaging figure and has a great perspective on her life. Otherwise, there's a booklet with some short essays and a trailer, but the interview is good enough to suffice.
For those of you wondering why I haven't talked about people eating other people, this is cannibal in the traditional sense of outsiders and, technically, non-Christians, which you'll be reminded of during each of the what seems like three hundred times the theme song plays. In any event, Cavani's a great, underrated director and this is the best of her early films. Raro's I Cannibali (Blu-ray) provides a nice platform for the film. For fans of Italian political cinema, this one comes highly recommended.
Case dismissed, now go bury the bodies.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Raro Video
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