This Wednesday, the Lavazza Italian Film Festival kicks off at Palace Cinemas in Brisbane. If you’re looking for a showcase of Italian cinema – from opening night film Let Yourself Go! to closing night retrospective (checks notes), uh, Life is Beautiful – you could do worse.
But, of course, you could also do better.
While Palace Barracks plays host to the opening night gala, all you need do is take a short walk across the river to the Gallery of Modern Art to be exposed to an entirely different variety of Italian cinema. There you’ll find Lucio Fulci’s gory grindhouse classics The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, each screening on 35mm prints. These films – amongst many others – are playing as part of “Gothic, Giallo, Gore: Masters of Italian Horror”, a program co-presented by GOMA with the Brisbane Festival. If you like your bolognaise with a bit of spice and a lot of meat, the retrospective offers a compelling alternative to Lavazza’s polite programming.
“Gothic, Giallo, Gore: Masters of Italian Horror” centres primarily around three directors with a legitimate claim to the title of master, with Fulci’s work screening alongside films from Italian horror legends Mario Bava and Dario Argento (along with a demonic cameo from Bava’s son, Lamberto).
While I admit a little disappointment at the tightness of the programming – even as a relative newcomer to giallo, I’m already familiar with a number of Bava, Fulci and Argento’s films, and would’ve appreciated some more obscure inclusions – that’s counteracted by the breadth of choices across these directors’ filmographies. While Argento’s much-maligned late career work is judiciously avoided (the ‘newest’ film of his to screen is 1987’s Opera, screening from the director’s own print!), the program includes less-celebrated films alongside established genre pillars like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Blood and Black Lace and Zombi 2.
Case in point: the decision to program Bava’s Rabid Dogs (also released as Kidnapped). The film was Bava’s last, uncompleted at the time of his death and entangled in legal shenanigans that meant it wasn’t released until almost two decades after its filming. If you go by the title of the retrospective, it’s an odd fit. As Bava’s flirtation with the poliziotteschi (Italian crime movie) subgenre, it’s neither gothic nor giallo, and is more sweaty than gory. It is an example of stupendous, low-budget filmmaking, raw and ragged, and it’s hard to complain about the programmer’s choice to include it alongside more conventional choices.
There’s innovation, too, when it comes to the old standbys. Suspiria could have easily been a fizzer, coming in the wake of MonsterFest’s screening of the restoration only a few months ago. But the opening night screening of the film attracted a huge audience (thanks presumably to the clout of GOMA, one of the few remaining jewels in Brisbane’s eroding cinema culture), and that’s followed up this Friday with a screening of the film at The Tivoli scored – live! – by prog-rock icons Goblin. There’s an obvious attempt to attract an audience by thinking differently, rather than just relying on an extant audience primed to appreciate such films whatever you do with them.
There’s room for improvement, naturally. The novelty of seeing such films of 35mm prints is a big selling point, but there’s a reason for the rarity of 35mm prints: they’re hard to store reliably, which means they’re often in shitty condition. That’s led to a few hiccups along the way: last Wednesday’s screening of Zombi 2 ran into technical difficulties, while Saturday’s Bava double of Blood and Black Lace and Kill, Baby … Kill! had the former replaced with a (gorgeous) digital restoration, and the latter screened from such a washed-out print I didn’t realise the film wasn’t black-and-white until I googled it afterwards. Even digital prints ran into difficulties; the opening night screening of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage had audio issues that necessitated a frustrating interruption to the screening. Thankfully, the GOMA staff handled these issues well, offering free tickets to customers at the screenings of both Bird and Zombi 2.
My only other quibble – and it’s a very minor quibble – is that I would’ve appreciated a touch more historical context. I understand the desire to focus on Argento, Bava and Fulci, but attending Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ (free) talk on the opening Saturday made me realise how much history is missing here. Just as one example: Heller-Nicholas singled out Luchino Visconti’s debut feature film Ossessione (from 1943) as a significant influence on the giallo films to come. How clever would it have been to sneak this film into the line-up as an out-of-the-box, educational addition? It’s a nitpick, but I do miss how some of GOMA’s past programs have had those couple of weird choices to stretch their programming boundaries.
On the whole, though, I’m incredibly excited at the opportunity to see these films on the big screen. And it’s not all GOMA has in store for 2017; if you’re more a fan of the arthouse than the grindhouse, there’re extensive retrospectives of both Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Satyajit Ray on the horizon.