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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
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
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.
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)…
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.
I just couldn't get on with this. This starred Shelley Winters, who I like and also featured Max Von Sydow and Rita Tushingham, all good but from the very beginning I was in trouble. I had read someone who suggested this was a cross between Texas Chainsaw Massacre and La Cage Aux Folles and they were not that far wrong but I had perhaps underestimated how much the string of elderly women being played by men would hinder my enjoyment. More especially, I think it helped to keep me distanced and I found it difficult to relate. Admittedly, I feel this was in part due to pretty poor translation on the subtitles but even allowing for this the film is too long and there is far too much uninteresting dialogue. It was only with the help of some judicious fast forwarding that I made it to the end at all and I have to say that things did come together fairly well as we learn that the hoary old Italian mamma being fixated by her son did take on a little more significance with the pending war. Winters is okay but maybe a little one note and it was this relentless singleminded nature of the whole thing that had me almost switching off too many times.
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