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DOWN THE ANCIENT STAIRS has Marcello Mastroianni playing the head doctor in an insane asylum of fascist Italy of the thirties. Director Bolognini probably intended the hospital to represent a microcosm of the Italy of the times. The doctor is working on the theory that schizophrenia is caused by a physical virus that can be isolated and treated. This controversial film examines the repressive mechanisms common to fascism and institutional psychiatry. The doctor is loved by three women and has simultaneous affairs with a nurse, a nymphomaniac, and the hospital director's wife. Although somewhat sensationalized, this film was made by a director of some renown, Mauro Bolognini, who gave us gems like BELL'ANTONIO (also with Mastroianni), LA GRANDE BOURGEOISE, METELLO, AGOSTINO, and LA VIACCIA.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Professor Bonaccorsi is a prominent doctor in a mental institution near
Florence. His work is well regarded, his theories about how to deal
with his problem patients are questioned when a new arrival Dr. Anna
Bersani comes in to do research in the field of madness. She is a
Freudian scholar whereas Bonaccorsi is a man that appears to follow his
At the institution Bonaccorsi has been enjoying three women almost simultaneously. There is Francesca, an older lady married to the director. There is Bianca, who is his assistant. Finally there is Carla, the bored wife of one of Bonaccorsi's colleagues. Anna senses the high levels of the libido of most patients, while realizing what is really going on with the man that is in charge.
Bonaccorsi stumbles into a false premise when one of the inmates tries to commit suicide. Studying a sample of her blood, he decides to probe the disease most of the patients are experiencing to a pattern he found in the blood. Anna, has to be the one to contradict him because of the kind of solvent he had used that gave the false promise. Bonaccorsi who has not been outside the madhouse for a number of years suddenly realize he might be going mad himself. After all, his own sister is being treated for her own kind of madness. Could he be spared from contracting it himself?
Mauro Bolognini, the director, working with Mario Tobino's novel, sets the story at the height of another maddening time in his native Italy as the Mussolini forces are becoming so powerful they soon will dominate everything. The madness inside the hospital matches the utter madness and chaos going on in the country. In order to free himself from this folly, Bonaccorsi must escape his surroundings and the cushy life he has led up to now.
The great Marcello Mastroianni heads the cast as Bonaccorsi. This actor was always good in everything he decided to get involved with, and he does not disappoint in this picture. Lovely Francoise Fabian appears as the newly arrived doctor who will challenge her colleague's theory. Another famous face that is welcome in anything she does is Lucia Bose, playing the wife of the director of the clinic. Marthe Keller appears as Bianca.
Ennio Guarnieri, the cinematographer, mixes the gloom of the place in muted tones that work well, enhancing the atmosphere. Ennio Morricone, a genius when it comes to film scores, provided the background music which at times does not blend too well with narrative.
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