Given that director Mauro Bolognini is not very well-known outside of his native country, I guess it is appropriate that the first film I watch of his is one which I haven’t been aware of myself for very long (though I can’t, for the life of me, actually recall how I came to know about it!). Furthermore, I acquired it some time ago as a DivX but, while the picture wouldn’t show on my cheaper, all-purpose DVD model, it played without a hitch on my PC monitor!
To begin with, the casting for this one is quite bizarre: Shelley Winters, Max Von Sydow, Rita Tushingham, Laura Antonell, Milena Vukotic (who appeared in all of Luis Bunuel’s last three films!), Adriana Asti (who, like Vukotic herself, appeared in Bunuel’s THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY ), Renato Pozzeto, Alberto Lionello and Liu' Bosisio. Winters returns to the “Mama from Hell”-type roles she had previously incarnated in Roger Corman’s gangster pic BLOODY MAMA (1970) and two Curtis Harrington “Grand Guignol” pieces – WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971) and WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (1972). Von Sydow, Lionello and Pozzetto all appear in dual roles – one of them as women (i.e. not cross-dressers), with the others only coming into play after the first are bumped off. Of interest to Italian cinema buffs, Liu' Bosisio interpreted the part of Mrs. Pina Fantozzi in the cult comedy franchise starring Paolo Villaggio – a role which, from the third entry onwards, was taken over by none other than Milena Vukotic!
Anyway, the narrative here was inspired by a real-life case that occurred in Italy between 1939-40: Winters plays a lotto officer who, having given birth to thirteen children of whom only one survived into adulthood, she guards him with a morbid, unhealthy jealousy; together with him and her paralyzed husband, she takes up residence in a condominium populated by eccentrics and neurotics. She seems to integrate herself well in her new surroundings, becoming a confidante in particular of Von Sydow (who has recurrent nightmares of being raped by the devil!), Lionello (who intends to go back to the U.S.A. in search of her long-lost husband) and Tushingham (the pale-faced piano-playing sister of the handsome young parish priest). Another ‘female’ acquaintance is Pozzetto, whose luscious room-mate (gymnastics teacher Antonelli) soon sets her sights on Winters’ son and, consequently, sending the old woman off her rocker – mistreating deaf-mute maid Vukotic to the point of forcing her to seduce Winters’ own son in an attempt to drive him away from Antonelli!; and killing off her friends by decapitating them with a meat cleaver, hacking off their body parts and making bars of soap out of their flesh and tea-time delicacies out of their grounded bones (she dubs her product, quite literally, “dead man’s bones”)!! Although Tushingham at first defends Winters against the foul-natured tongues of her suspicious neighbors, it is she who first finds out the truth about the real ingredients of the soap by discovering Lionello’s ring in one of them – subsequent to which, she expires from a heart attack. After Winters’ son leaves for the front, she takes out her anger first on Vukotic and then on Antonelli (whom she has taken in and subsequently chases around the house with an axe) but the latter paralyzes her with a confession of her pregnancy and soon after the police arrive to whisk the old woman off to jail. Incidentally, Winters’ manic homicidal spree stems from her belief that, if she appeases Death with other victims, it will leave her son well alone (which should have also spared him duty in the impending war!).
The film includes a couple of surprising instances of full-frontal nudity from the plain-looking (and usually chaste) Vukotic; speaking of this, I felt strange watching Hollywood veteran Winters not only mouthing Italian dialect but also drying her fully-naked, full-grown son after taking a bath! Popular singer/songwriter Enzo Jannacci and, by extension Italy’s foremost female singer Mina, provide a simple but haunting musical underscoring (a theme which is also hummed in the film by would-be Germanic chanteuse Pozzetto). As such, therefore, GRAN BOLLITO (which roughly translates to “The Big Stew”) is an uneven but decidedly one-of-a-kind, grotesque black comedy about obsessive mother-love descending into near-incest and serial killing – with added anti-war undertones and, possibly, an implied plea for tolerance towards persons with differing sexual orientations! Finally, I should note that I have several more Bolognini films in my unwatched VHS pile (which I hope to get to sooner rather than later) – namely LA NOTTE BRAVA (1959), IL BELL’ ANTONIO (1960), LA VIACCIA (1961), LA CORRUZIONE (1963), METELLO (1970), FATTI DI GENTE PERBENE (1974), LA VERA STORIA DELLA SIGNORA DELLE CAMELIE (1981) and two compendium pieces, LE STREGHE (1967) and CAPRICCIO ALL’ ITALIANA (1968)…
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