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I Cannibali
Savant Blu-ray Review

I Cannibali
Raro Video / Kino Lorber
1970 / Color / 2:35 widescreen (Techniscope) / 87 78 min. / The Year of the Cannibals / Street Date January 14, 2014 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.95
Starring Pierre Clémenti, Britt Ekland, Tomas Milian, Francesco Leonetti, Delia Boccardo, Marino Masé, Alessandro Cane, Cora Mazzoni, Francesco Arminio.
Giulio Albonico
Film Editor Nino Baragli
Production Design and Costume Design Ezio Frigerio
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Written by
Produced by Bino Cicogna, Enzo Doria
Directed by Liliana Cavani

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The disc label Raro Video isn't called that for nothing. Here's a sci-fi / art picture that's been scarce in the United States beyond some original festival showings and perhaps a tiny release in New York... maybe.  2  Italian director Liliana Cavani still identifies herself as a committed director of movies with a social and political agenda. A top film student in the early 1960s, she made her mark as a director of acclaimed TV documentaries. After her feature films about Galileo and St. Francis, she turned to The Revolution with 1969's I Cannibali. Filmed in color and Techniscope, the picture is an immediate reaction to the '68 student and worker strike upheavals in Paris, Rome and elsewhere around the globe. It's a stylized adaptation and updating of the Greek tragedy Antigone. Sophocles' story concerns a decree by King Creon after a civil war. He orders that the body of a rebel killed in battle not be given the dignity of a burial. The rebel's sister Antigone defies the law and her family as well. Her own sister refuses to help, and her fiancé Haemon takes her side only after she's gotten into terrible trouble. Before things are finished Creon's unyielding rule -- giving commands that outrage the greater laws of man and nature -- take a terrible toll in lives.

"Morte a chi tocca i corpi dei rebelli" =
"Death to any who touches the rebels' bodies"

Director Cavani and her writers Italo Moscati and Fabrizio Onofri re-imagine Antigone (Britt Eklund) in an alternate-reality Milan under martial law. A mass rebellion has just been put down, leaving the streets littered with rebel corpses. People just step over the bodies, which the government orders not to be touched. Antigone has finally found her brother's body in front of a bar, and is enraged that her family accepts this situation without protest. Antigone's sister Ismene (Delia Boccardo) won't help, and neither will our heroine's intended Haemon (Tomás Milian of The Big Gundown), who is the son of the Prime Minister. Enter Tiresias (Pierre Clementí), a mysterious foreigner who washes up on a beach and witnesses the slaughter of some children. Unable to speak any known language, Tiresias calls Antigone "Sanna". When prompted to communicate, he draws the symbol of a fish. Like Christians working underground in ancient Rome, Antigone and Tiresias snatch corpses from the street, starting with her brother. They give them a proper burial in a cave. The security police are soon alerted, and Antigone's own family happily cooperates with them. Taking shelter in the sauna of an all-male officers' club and disguising themselves as priests, the couple can only evade the cops for so long. Antigone is beaten into dumb silence by the security police, while Tiresias is captured by the opportunistic TV news outlet, which parades him in front of their cameras while theorizing that he's a feral child, like Mowgli in The Jungle Book. Meanwhile, Haemon's appeals fail to move his father, the Prime Minister. Antigone's lover takes to stealing corpses as well and is locked up. As a psychic protest against his father's tyranny, Haemon pretends to be a dog.

In her candid interview (an extra on this Raro Video disc) Liliana Cavani says that she was reaching for 'significance' while making I Cannibali. The perfectly logical adaptation of Sophocles' play replaces Creon with a totalitarian state. Haemon's father has a grand title yet is just another functionary following inhuman rules meant to instill fear in the general public. The original Antigone is a poetic examination of the rights of individuals against the state. Family politics and unwritten laws of human decency come into play as well. Written four centuries B.C., the play's issues are the same exact things we debate today. Will any of today's movies still be "in print" 24 centuries from now?

I Cannibali frequently is mentioned in the company of other political films attempting to find an artistic direction from the short-lived May '68 upheavals. Like many still cited in critical studies, it wasn't a popular hit and did not find an American distributor despite its then-trendy content: rebellion against the state, anti-establishment gestures, decorative nudity, a 'shocking' scene or two. The movie is almost completely without a sense of humor. Britt Eklund is fairly effective as Antigone, but I don't remember her smiling even once in the picture. Pierre Clementí, Europe's iconic "longhaired student rebel" of the time, looks trendy but vacant. He stands in for Sophocles' blind seer, with an added dimension of sex appeal.

Cavani's movie chooses to make some things fairly realistic but opts to stylize things in a way that would probably annoy normal moviegoers. Few details make much sense. The innumerable corpses spread out over the city are arranged as if to look decorative. They're ordinary people and don't look as if they were part of any kind of rebellion. There's no blood and they aren't rotting or discolored; they look fresh and clean. They play like a good graphic idea for a striking fashion photography session. Supposedly left where they fell, many corpses block the streets or would keep cars from pulling out of parking spaces. People step over them to enter stores. In a short subject this might be good but this basic visual is central to the movie, all the way through. Perhaps the security police remove them selectively? In the film's best visual, a priest in red shoes walks before a water truck, blessing the bodies as the street is hosed down. Menacing signs promise death to anybody who touches the bodies, but the three lawbreakers we see are simply incarcerated, and then let free. For a cruel dictatorship, this Milan is pretty wishy-washy.

Sci-fi fans are often perplexed by apocalyptic fantasies in which everybody has died from one thing or another, but there are no bodies in the streets: On the Beach, The World The Flesh and The Devil, The Quiet Earth. Liliana Cavani clears up the mystery -- the corpses were apparently all teleported to Milan!

As the movie lacks a dreamlike atmosphere, many of its weird occurances just fall flat, like bad anarchist theater. A group of children are shot down on the beach, a gratuitous act that is never explained. Tiresias has apparently washed up on shore, or perhaps arrived like The Man Who Fell To Earth. Yet he shows up in a classy outfit -- leather jacket, colorful scarf, a cape -- suitable for a runway at a fashion show. A big deal is made of the fact that Antigone and Tiresias have a near- immediate spiritual understanding. He can't speak any known language and they never say anything to each other. So how does she explain to him that they're breaking the law or that they have to watch out for cops? I Cannibali shapes up as one of those Youth Rebellion pictures in which being young and beautiful grants mental telepathy with one's own kind and means never being in doubt about the rightness of one's acts.

Tiresias and Atigone, wearing only blankets, are allowed into an Officer's Club sauna with a dozen naked men. A boy in a uniform tunic enters, and the men form a chain to crawl between his legs. "Lower yourselves", the boy calls out. Elsewhere, Ismene's boyfriend (Marino Masé) is a security cop. She tries to seduce him at a Polo field, but he tells her he's "taken a vow" and cannot. And when Tiresias and Antigone hide out in a Recruiting Center and see what the Army doctors are doing, they walk down a line of recruits mumbling dire warnings: "Bless you -- you're in line to be castrated -- Bless you -- better get out of here now..." If only more of the picture were similarly inspired.

The nude couple run from police dogs in the streets and are equally naked when they enter a church. An altar box for sacramental wine turns out to contain a family of white rats and a dove. It unfortunately comes off as lame symbolism. Tiresias and Antigone don't talk, but everybody else talks too much. Haemon harangues his father about letting Antigone out of the security prison, and his father ignores him. When Haemon is locked up as well, dad reminds him he is the master and just wants him to "get back to normal". This is Haemon's cue to play insane and adopt the behavior of a dog, crouching in a corner and eating off the floor. The slimy intellectuals, authoritarians and TV vultures keep trying to get the couple to talk, and invent silly reasons to explain their anti-social behavior. Haemon spells it out -- in the face of tyranny, the individual's only weapon is to make himself into all the things the corrupt society can't abide. It's a manifesto, the kind that reads well on paper but translates poorly to film.

Thus the rebels must become completely anti-social in all respects -- become the 'cannibals' of the title. I can see viewers frustrated that a movie that calls itself I Cannibali has no scenes in which people eat people. For that you'll have to track down Pier Paolo Pasolini's Porcile (Pigsty), a similar but far more gross exploration of the same theme, in which Pierre Clementí reportedly eats part of his own father. Cavani's picture is inconsistent on this idea of ideological anarchy. Antigone and Tiresias don't reject conventional values but remain pure in their love and are still dedicated to each other at the tragic end. The brilliant Sophocles had a better handle on bad-news endings: most of his characters wander off-stage somewhere to kill themselves.

Britt Eklund is gorgeous. She had multiple shots at a bigger stardom around this time and it's nice to see her do well in a serious role away from her 'available' sex cat image in lighter fare. But Cavani's characters are little more than ciphers, so there's little chance to get deeper into Ms. Eklund's hurt looks and determined expressions.

Released through Kino Lorber, Raro Video's Blu-ray of I Cannibali is a thing of beauty. The images are colorful and rich; Giulio Albonico's Techniscope cinematography uses long lenses, keeping most of the action at a remove and tamping down the emotional content of many scenes. Only a couple of shots look a little unstable. As with properly handled Techniscope (the half-frame format) there is no apparent problem with grain. Even Ms. Cavani says that she could not find a decent print of the film for a revival, but this disc looks marvelous. The show is in Italian with English subtitles that can be added or dropped, but only in the main menu.

The audio is strong as well. This seems to be the season for new discs with exotic soundtracks by Ennio Morricone. His themes boost the interest level during chases and suspense moments while allowing Cavani's story to retain its mystery. There isn't very much in the way of mystery to the rock vocal in Morricone's title tune, sung by Don Powell backed by the Chorale of Allesandro Allesandroni. Powell belts out the lyrics but they aren't exactly inspired: "I'll just fly away / on my sky blue horse / happy that my mind is free. / Call me a cannibal! / I won't die!"

Raro Video's Stefano Curti and Zelda Thomas Curti offer an excellent extra. In a 26-minute interview, Liliana Cavani explains her intentions and reveals a number of amusing anecdotes. She talks about the influences on her work, identifying herself with the 'emancipation of 1968', not the liberation of 1945. She loved the idea that the protesting youth wanted to be citizens of the world, not of a particular nation. She wanted her movie to be a happening.  1

Cavani says that the corpses closer to the camera were real but many more were dummies. Since they filmed quickly on ordinary streets, unaware passers-by would come across the bodies and step carefully around them just like the oppressed citizens in the movie. She says that at a festival screening, Luchino Visconti stood up at the conclusion and shouted, "These directors should be executed!" She also reports an enthusiastic reception at the Lincoln Center, a statement borne out by the Variety review: when the final scene showed the spirit of rebellion growing, "a spirited cheer went up from the liberated under-30s at the New York Film Festival". Paramount was willing to distribute the film with the caveat that a happy ending be arranged. The deal fell through, forcing American kids seeking romantic revolutionary martyrdom to content themselves with The Strawberry Statement and Zabriskie Point.

Ms. Cavani says that she wanted to cast actors that already 'were manifestos in themselves' -- a clever way of saying that her choice for a spacey counterculture everyman needed to embody the spirit of student rebellion. Already a star by virtue of his small role in Buñ,uel's Belle de jour, Pierre Clementí acted for a remarkable number of name directors. He was so unencumbered by the establishment that Cavani had to pick him up from a rehab center and watch him like a hawk before and during filming. Clementís lifestyle suffered a setback in 1972 when a minor marijuana bust stuck him with a 17-month prison term. His career momentum was severely hampered -- by 1974 wild rebel types weren't in as high demand.

All in all I Cannibali is an exotic oddity and a must-see picture for sci-fi completists and fans of Radical-Chic epics. Interestingly, the original trailer (included) manages to make it look as if some cannibalizing does happen in the movie, through clever cutting of a prison scene where some inmates manhandle a female prisoner.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, I Cannibali Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (appear to be forced)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 14, 2014


1. Cavani's ticket to the big time came three years later with The Night Porter, a hit movie about the perverse affair between a former Nazi and a woman who was once a prisoner in his concentration camp. Starring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, the movie is 'complex' but is also wide open to charges of egregious exploitation and bad taste. It also helped inaugurate a particularly ugly pornographic "Nazista" subgenre.

2. Helpful info from correspondent John Bernhard, 1.18.14:

Hi Glenn, I enjoyed the write up on I Cannibali. I had always seen promotional materials from American-International for this film, so guessed it played around confusing people in the US. I found a 1972 newspaper listing from Canada (I think) and have attached that and an A.I.P. poster.

(note: John's newspaper clipping and poster scan look real -- and each grossly misstates the content of the film. The Ad carries the indecipherable tag line (verbatim): "When Sex and Violence are games of skill and Murder a delightful kind of recreation." The A.I.P. poster reads, "Sunday 8 a.m. you awaken and make love like there's no tomorrow. You may be right!")

Not sure if I will pick this up but your review gave me something to think about. Best regards, John

3. From Joe Dante, 1.19.14:

Actually this picture got a lot of bookings when A.I.P. picked it up, although it probably didn't make much money. So there's an English dub track somewhere. There are a lot of slick A.I.P. ad materials floating around to this day.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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