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Leonarda Cianciulli was a housewife who became one of Italy's most notorious serial killers. She murdered three women and boiled down their bodies to soap. This took place in 1940, and when Cianculli had died in prison in 1970, the case apparently re-gained some attention, leading to the 1977 biopic/horror movie Gran bollito".
The movie, although taking a lot of liberties for the screenplay, provides a (probably) quite accurate depiction of the woman (here called Lea", played by Shelley Winters). She was pregnant more than a dozen of times, but lost all of the children due to miscarriage or due to illnesses shortly after birth. When her only son Michele survived and grew up healthy, Lea, highly superstitious, believed to be in a pact with the devil, and set out to do even most drastic steps, including human sacrifices, to ensure his safety. And there is a lot for her to worry, since Michele is about to be drafted for the military, and there is also another woman in his life, the beautiful Sandra, who causes heavy jealousy in Lea.
This movie is morbid and sickening throughout. Its strength is in the contrast between the normality of Lea's house and the horrible things she does in it. Her behaviour is always friendly, protective, helpful, but at the same time she is cold-blooded, determined, crazy. To add to the creepy atmosphere, all the people who frequent her house are utterly strange, her housemaid is handycapped, her husband is paralyzed, you name it. In an interesting take on the real events, the three murder victims are transvestites, increasing the strange feel of the movie.
Unfortunately there is overall quite little going on and a couple of story lines are not really too helpful. There's a lot of rather irrelevant dialogs and the murder sequences are dragged out far too long, especially the first victim and the whole I'm going to America" thing. It was hard to endure for me and I actually just kept up in the hope that Laura Antonelli as Sandra would show up more often. In fact she does near the end, but her part is quite shallow and serves only to build some tension in the over-constructed finale. Still, her elegant beauty and normality" makes her an anchor in this sea of madness.
Despite the problems of the screenplay, the actors perform very well, especially Shelley Winters as Lea on the thin line between normality and madness. But it's also very surprising to see an actor like Max von Sydow as one of the transvestites, and as mentioned, Italian superstar Laura Antonelli in a supporting role (replacing Ornella Muti on short notice). Another noteworthy aspect is the perfect time period recreation by Caligula" artist Danilo Donati. Although not too graphic, this film is hard to come by in an unedited version.
Gran bollito" is successful at creating a sickening atmosphere and the actors are very good, but all that can't offset the weaknesses of the plot. As a biopic, it is just too superficial and filled with irrelevant subplots, as a horror movie it can only offer its creepy mood, but barely any real tension except for very few scenes. Still, not too bad and watchable if you're into Seventies weirdness.
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