Until recently Tinto Brass was best known to Western audiences as the director of the infamous CALIGULA (1979), but with the advent of DVD and relaxation from various censorship authorities as regards the depiction of on-screen imagery relating to borderline hardcore involving fellatio, masturbation, and sadomasochism, uncut versions of Brass’s works that include FRIVOLOUS LOLA (aka MONELLA), MIRANDA, P.O. BOX TINTO BRASS, CHEEKY (aka TRANSGRESSION), and THE KEY have found their way onto UK shelves (courtesy of Arrow Films) whilst unexpurgated versions of CALIGULA, and THE VOYEUR are available as Region 1 releases in the USA.
BLACK ANGEL, the latest film from Italy’s “Il Maestro” is an updating of Carmillo Boito’s novel, “Senso”, previously filmed by Luchino Visconti in 1954, that transports the tale of an Italian Countess and her tempestuous affair with an Austrian officer from the original's 1965 time-frame to March 1945 and condenses events to a 24 hour period in which Livia Mazzioni (Anna Galiena), the wife of a high ranking German official, is being escorted from Asolo by her admiring lawyer friend, Ugo (Franco Branciaroli) to Venice. Livia is initiating an unplanned rendezvous with her lover, handsome SS officer, Lt. Helmut Schultz (Gabriel Garko), an insatiable Adonis who abuses his high standing in the Nazi party to gain local privileges and bed any woman that crosses his path.
Livia recalls the events that have led to her predicament and flashbacks reveal her first encounter with Helmut who professes a predilection for causing public outrage by arrogantly tearing away the clothing of a buxom female escort during an Italian theatrical performance. Helmut can do whatever he pleases whilst he’s supplying his boss Goebbels with the finest women from society, at least whilst Italy and Germany’s fascist alliance is still in place in Northern Italy.
Against a background of political treachery, army desertion, trafficking, and communist opposition, we witness Livia’s infatuation with her German lover take precedence over all else, as she is slowly drawn into a world of perverted pleasure that releases her ‘dark angel’ or shadow self. She is initially upset by erotic watercolours by George Grosz that she deems “obscene” but quickly changes her views; “They’re marvellous” she professes to Helmut, a scene that leads to them indulging in frenzied intercourse in a back alley whilst a passing patrol of Gestapo mercilessly gun down an Italian woman begging the release of her communist lover.
Further juxtaposition of sexual activity and violence, and it’s equation with sex/death is brought to the fore with shots of Gestapo “death head” emblems that adjourn uniforms in brothels and sadomasochistic orgies in which scantily clad women flaunt themselves for Nazi officers. The fetishization of such imagery is not new to Brass and his penchant for such has previously been utilised in SALON KITTY (1976).
Other common Brass themes explored in BLACK ANGEL include female treachery, wanton desire, male weakness, and, of course, the glorification of the female form. This time around, Brass dispenses with multiple shots of the female buttocks and instead lovingly focuses his voyeuristic lens on their breasts. We are treated to close-ups of the stunning figure of Anna Galiena (JAMON, JAMON, and THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND) who is seen stripping, swimming, and making love, together with an array of beautiful supporting actresses that feature in a visually captivating orgy sequence, reminiscent of CALIGULA, in which Brass’ panning camera swims amongst its Bacchanalian participants who busy themselves in acts ranging from on-screen fellatio to light masturbation.
The acting is once again of a high calibre; particularly impressive is Gabriel Garko’s portrayal of the cowardly Lieutenant who both acts and looks the part of a hedonistic and licentious officer acting callously with the safeguard of the SS hierarchy behind him. Whilst Anna Galiena admits, in an accompanying ‘Behind the Scenes’ featurette included in this DVD presentation, that she was somewhat coy concerning the removal of her clothing in public, there is no evidence of this on screen, and her range of facial expression and body language effectively convey the actions of a woman whose intellect and aristocratic scruples succumb to animalistic desire.
Brass contrasts hard and soft lens photography to show his women in varying moods, and the setting of Venice, with its aura of decadence and sexual profligacy proves an effective backdrop for the story. Another photographic device employed to engage the viewer is to take the unusual step of filming the present in black and white, in the accompanying interview Brass reveals that the primary reason for this was to simply pay tribute to the earlier Visconti movie, and at the same time draw viewer attention to the timeframe of events. Aside from its use as a framing device the effect can be seen to metaphorically reflect the “grey” or “sad” nature of the present for its female protagonist. With an end to fascism fast approaching, Lydia realises that her luxurious lifestyle will soon be a thing of the past. Left on her own without her maids, and husband she realises she misses the security her old life afforded, and pines for the arms of her lover. Not only has she squandered much of the money which could have bought her some semblance of a future, Lydia has also lost her self respect, “I’ll barter my body with anyone”, she informs Ugo, should he drive her back to Venice so she can be with Helmut
Whilst BLACK ANGEL isn’t as erotically charged as the likes of SALON KITTY, ALL LADIES DO IT (aka COSI FAN TUTTE), or CHEEKY, this latest work displays a maturity in both its pacing and psychological observation regarding the extent to which the human race will yield its soul in order to obtain carnal pleasure, a theme touched on in previous Brass works but which is stated more eloquently here.
Visually arresting, with beautiful costumes, art-deco sets and accompanied by a symphonic score from Ennio Morricone that makes the very best use of piano and strings to convey the decadence of the era, BLACK ANGEL will cement Tinto Brass’ reputation as “Il Maestro” and earn further plaudits from western audiences.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Tinto Brass
Italian Language with English subtitles
Italy / 2002 / 122 minutes.
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
An Arrow Films Release (UK)
All region. Pal. Dolby Stereo