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Gran Bollito opens with a message that "this is a tale of collective madness." In a film as willfully deranged as this one, that's putting it mildly. Shelley Winters stars as a psychotic Italian matriarch with a penchant for slaughtering her neighbours and boiling their chopped-up corpses to make soap. In a spirit to waste-not-want-not, she grinds up any bones that are left over to make biscuits for afternoon tea. The fact that all her victims are middle-aged spinsters played by men in drag (including - no, I kid you not! - that Ingmar Bergman stalwart Max von Sydow) only goes to show that Gran Bollito is well-nigh apocalyptic in its weirdness.
Ah, but there are deeper meanings at work here! Winters, it seems, was driven to madness because all but one of her children were born dead. Worse, she lives in Mussolini's Italy in 1938, and is tormented by visions of the upcoming World War. "What I have done is nothing!" She intones, and history is about to prove her right. Madly possessive of her one surviving son (Antonio Marsina) she will go to any lengths to keep him out of the army - or out of the arms of a sexy young dance teacher played by Laura Antonelli.
One of Italy's most gifted and under-rated directors, Mauro Bolognini here seems to invent a genre all his own. Gran Bollito is - in equal parts - a lush period epic, an anti-war message movie, a blood-soaked giallo and a hilarious high-camp drag show. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets La Cage aux Folles? Yes, but with elements of Coming Home and a Merchant Ivory frock flick thrown in. In one of her rare leading roles, the sublime Winters is a worthy rival to that other portly and all-too-plausible psychotic, Kathy Bates in Misery.
Her trio of cross-dressing victims are perfect in every gesture, and there's fine support too from Milena Vukotic as a simple-minded maid and Adriana Asti as a snooty neighbour. Antonelli's role is largely decorative, but she wears her Danilo Donati gowns with aplomb, and the very handsome Marsina gets a frontal nude scene. As usual, Bolognini does an impeccable job of evoking the look and feel of his chosen period. All the more mystifying, then, that he allows a cheesy 70s pop ballad to recur on the soundtrack.
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