Casting coup is choosing young Maurizio Degli Esposti as the protagonist, featured in virtually every scene and through whose eyes the story unfolds. He's terrific - a handsome but strange thesp who made very few films and thereby is not distracting or bringing any movie star baggage to the role. His father has just died under mysterious circumstances, and his quest is to find out what happened and to take charge of his life.
His older siblings, Jean Sorel (old enough to be his dad) and the strikingly sinister beauty Marilu Tolo seem to be responsible for the patriarch's death, or are they? A constant tone of paranoia makes the viewer wonder whether Enrico (Degli Esposti's role) is really sane, or is he a victim of his family's hereditary insanity? His mother committed suicide 10 years ago, and the boy has a fetishistic (her shoes and clothing all dressed up mannequin-style) shrine to her, as he listens endlessly to her voice on a tape recorder. The family's housekeeper Talia has also been committed (by the siblings) to an insane asylum and is crazy as a loon.
Titled KILL THE FATTED CALF AND ROAST IT, picture opens with cows being taken to the slaughterhouse and in the final reel the Biblical parable from Luke of the Prodigal Son is quoted to explain the relevance of this ominous and highly uncommercial movie moniker.
En route to a thoroughly downbeat conclusion, Samperi pours on the strangeness, with sexy Tolo clearly representing his favorite incest theme, as both brothers desire her (and probably have gone further). Enrico's closeness to his mother is really more infantile than a case of incest, as represented in a key scene where he is about to suckle at Tolo's breast (as present-day substitute) but is interrupted by the arrival of Sorel.
Set in Padua, but given a Gothic atmosphere, film suggest the kind of Poe or Lovecraft tales like "The Fall of the House of Usher" but is not directed in horror film idiom beyond the suggestion of a family curse. Samperi is a master of eroticism, and (other than his various anarchic and lightweight comedy assignments) is unparalleled in creating a morbid mood of dread mixed with sensuality. The filmmaker I most like in this vein is Sweden's Arne Mattsson, but Samperi has gone much further (in the realm of soft porn) than he ever did.
Degli Esposti's career is an enigma for me: I have seen him in three avant garde movies of high quality, this one by Samperi, followed by Giulio Questi's absurdist ARCANA and finally SIMONA, based on a novel by Georges Bataille. All these films are about madness and in each Degli Esposti is paired with an ultra-sexy (and sinister) older woman, including such legends as Lucia Bose and Laura Antonelli. Did he burn out and go crazy in real life?
Ennio Morricone's musical score exceeds even his high standards of the period, and I was blown away -enjoying it (first time around at least) as much as his INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN and MADDALENA soundtracks from the outset of the '70s. Using various keyboards ranging from piano & organ to harpsichord playing in syncopated, rondo fashion, it sets a hypnotic mood that drives home the feeling of dread and an impossibility of escaping (spider web of sound) that is incomparable. Don't miss this if you're a Morricone fan.
Other technical credits are top-notch, including 'scope photography by the wonderful Franco Di Giacomo and editing by the unsung genius of Italian cinema Franco Arcalli (any film with his name in the credits is worth watching, period).
The one misstep in this otherwise purist exercise is a false ending which I won't spoil. It's one of those lame-duck "surprise twists" tacked on after the film proper has concluded, the sort popularized if my memory serves by Brian De Palma's gimmicky CARRIE finish. I hated it, but FATTED CALF plays extraordinarily well without it, so I'll just pretend the movie quit while it was ahead.
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