A radiant Ingrid Thulin escapes from Scandinavian gloom and into sunnier climes in this sensuous, if disturbing, erotic drama set in Venice. As the frivolous mother of a troubled teenage boy, she is a walking Oedipus complex in designer gowns (and a warm-up for more celebrated 'monster mother' roles in Night Games and The Damned). She dominates this film with her usual minimum of effort, no matter that she spends so much of it off-screen - in the arms of a dashing gigolo played by John Saxon.
How does her impressionable young son pass his time while Mummy is absent? Now we come to the secret of WHY this film is so totally obscure. (Even fans of Thulin, or of director Mauro Bolognini, barely seem to know it exists.) Wandering the desolate beaches of the Lido, the son falls in with a vagabond group of pubescent boys, ruled over by a mysterious older man whose attachment to them is...well, let's just say that implications are everything, and Bolognini's dreamily homoerotic photography of underage flesh would never pass scrutiny in our more knowing times.
For anybody who does not find its sexual subtext too off-putting, Agostino is an intelligent and handsomely photographed film. Its black-and-white views of Venice are as breathtaking as the later Technicolor visions of Visconti and Nicolas Roeg. If I can't recommend it wholeheartedly, that's because Bolognini (unlike, say, Louis Malle in the far superior Pretty Baby) does not seem entirely aware of the dilemmas raised by his own film.
At what age does human sexuality begin? At what age is it ethically acceptable for an artist to portray it? Such questions are rife in Agostino. The answers are nowhere to be found.
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