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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This movie is based on an episode from Dante's INFERNO, Canto XVIII, in
which we see Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, both traitors from Pisa,
encased in the ice of the Ninth Circle up to their heads. Ugolino is
eternally eating the head of Ruggieri because it was the archbishop who had
had him and his children imprisoned, with the prison tower sealed, so that
Ugolino would die from starvation after watching his children die too.
(There are three here, as in Dante. In reality there were four: two
children, two grandchildren.) The killer by starvation becomes eternal food
for his victim. That was Dante's grisly symbolic retribution.
The film recounts the episodes leading up to the imprisonment and death of Ugolino, with many liberties in the historical facts taken along the way. Ugolino has received the task of leading an army of Pisans against Genoese rivals. Ruggieri, who had been his presumed ally in political maneuverings within Pisa, now doublecrosses Ugolino, has him accused of treason, and condemned to death in the tower dungeon. In the final scene, when his daughter Emilia is able, through the pope , to get the order reversed, it is too late. As she enters the dungeon, we see the horror on her face which tells us that Ugolino has eaten his children's flesh, then gone mad, then died. The title on the screen is a quote form Dante, " poscia, piu' che l dolor, pote' l digiuno..." or "Then, hunger overcame him more than the suffering."
Considering the potency of its material, this film of Riccardo Freda has an unfolding that is rather bland at times, and it seems to operate on one note throughout without really building up through any heightening sense of drama. Carlo Ninchi as Ugolino give an assertive but unsubtle performance. Peter Trent is a convincingly slimy Ruggieri. Gianna Maria Canale is OK as devoted daughter Emilia, caught in the world of male machinations. The music is by Alessandro Cicognini, who scored a number of good films from that period, including De Sica's SHOE SHINE, THE BICYCLE THIEF, MIRACLE IN MILAN, UMBERTO D, and Moguy's TOMORROW IS TOO LATE. COUNT UGOLINO never seems to have been released commercially in the United States and remains unlisted in most guides.
This is one of Riccardo Freda's most powerful films, and yet it remains largely unknown outside of Italy. Having never read Dante, I can't say whether this is a faithful rendering of the Count Ugolino story. However, I will say that this film is an excellent example of how Freda excels at the gradual building of suspense. The atmosphere throughout this film is thick and menacing, and the ending grim and pessimistic. It was probably this reason that caused the film to receive negative reviews in Italy. Gianna Maria Canale plays her role well, but the main characters, Carlo Ninchi and Peter Trent, steal the screen. Trent is perfect in his role as the villainous archbishop, who betrays the hapless Ugolino (Ninchi) after professing to be his friend. Ninchi is clearly taken aback by the treachery, and displays his acting talents with natural ability. In this film, Freda does not pay as much attention to visual effects as he does in his other films. The concentration here is on story and dialog. But there are some scenes in which Freda plays out his artistic sense. From the lavishly furnished chambers, to the thrilling outdoor photography, Freda makes careful use of light and shade effects, to create a film that is highly professional from a visual standpoint. Altogether, a very nice film, which may be watched more than once.
The story takes place in the Italy of the late 13th century - it was
extracted from a tale told in Dante's Inferno:
Count Ugolino has become a big power in Pisa. His enemies want to do away with him. In the woods that surround his castle, behind the bushes, there are men with their bows ready. He's being watched and every step he makes... whether he's inside or outside his castle, or visiting friends, they are waiting for the right moment to strike. And strike they do, but so far, chance and his skill in arms have protected him. And there's treachery too. The enemy could be nearer than he thinks. Unlike what happens in the Hollywood historical films, the story in "Il Conte Ugolino" has more depth and the characters are clearly delineated against their historical background.
"Il Conte Ugolino" was a film destined for the general public but no concessions were made to make the story "pleasant". It has a soap opera style, that is, the camera concentrates more on the characters, but the landscape (for example, the sun rays filtering through the trees, first as a warning, and later, as a picture of doom) also helps to shape the story. Beautifully shot in black and white, "Il Conte Ugolino" is an engrossing film.
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