Arcana (1972) Poster

(1972)

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Experimental opus a MUST for Lucia Bose fans.
lor_2 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Lucia Bose is one of the all-time icons of European cinema, and a lost but essential showcase for her talents is Giulio Questi's experimental ARCANA, a film that lived up to its title. Having recently seen a full-length (102-minute) version, I recommend it heartily.

Unfortunately not only the film but Bose's rep has gotten mislaid in film history. Most young fans today could recite a list of starlet Edwige Fenech's credits, yet Bose, who appeared in many classics by Antonioni, Juan Antonio Bardem, Bolognini, Bunuel, Cavani, Cocteau, Duras and Fellini (just to start off the alphabet!) is not recognized in her lifetime.

She toplines ARCANA as a fake spiritualist, working with her weird, arrested-development son to make a living with séances and private readings. Midway through the film we see some levitating plates and other housewares to indicate that the son is actually in touch with the spirit world, but basically the film unfolds in the interesting genre of SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON, until director Questi literally goes crazy in the 2nd tempo.

The morbid atmosphere is intense, though this is not a traditional horror opus by any means. Questi rather is a surrealist in the vein of Arrabal, Alexandro Jodorowsky and other midnight-movie favorites, and even includes his oddest fetish, the eggs & chicken from his most famous (and still applauded) work DEATH LAYS AN EGG. An unsung auteur is editor Franco Arcalli, whose presence on a film I have found nearly guarantees both weirdness and quality, whether working with Antonioni, Bellocchio, Bertolucci or Cavani.

The off-color material included here is probably what led to its obscurity, even in a world drenched with full-out pornography. I guess the material is harder to tolerate in a "real" film than in actual porn, which current inversion in tastes has put on an "anything goes" type of pedestal. At any rate, Questi has our hero Maurizio Degli Esposito, who looks to be about 25, routinely wandering down the hallway carrying a big butcher knife, to sleep with mama Bose because "he's afraid".

-MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD-

Questi ends the first tempo of the film, at just under the hour mark, with a horrific payoff where Esposito ties up mom's arms and legs in bondage mode, rips open her bedclothes to expose a breast and brandishes the knife -quite a cliffhanger.

Eventually in the second tempo we see that Bose is okay, and the implied rape/incest is left hanging for the viewer to wonder about (definitely the best strategy). A frequent client, beautiful young Tina Aumont, has been spied on by Esposito during his misanthropic subway rides, and he sexually assaults her during one of her palm readings by Bose, with mom failing to come to the girl's aid. Final reels become increasingly abstract, with a whole group of people awaiting a séance going Living-Theater-style nuts (under Esposito's influence no doubt), while he corrupts the neighbor kids who hang out in their tenement's hallway. Bose conducts a ritualistic abortion (!) on client Aumont, and film climaxes with a seeming revolution outside in which townsfolk are pitted against the military, resulting in a nihilistic finish of Bose cut down by gunfire.

One can well imagine a dumbstruck film festival audience plodding out of the cinema back in 1972 after sitting through this assault on the senses, lured in the first place by the participation of then essential European stars Bose and Aumont. Esposito, who is handsome but perhaps typecast as terminally strange, didn't have much of a career, though I see he subsequently starred opposite the divine Laura Antonelli in another weird, lost film SIMONA, a picture never released in America despite Antonelli's huge success several years later that opened up the vaults of her past work. (NOTE: SIMONA has recently been imported belatedly on DVD by Mya.)

Bose is a true Earth Mother here, the type of role that normally would have been assigned at the time to Sophia Loren but because of the sordid material would not have even been worth submitting to that regal legend. She is unafraid to look "ugly" (impossible) in closeups, but has a chance here to let it all hang out in one of her greatest roles. Aumont is beautiful as ever, lending her usual sexploitation quotient to the proceedings.

Questi's symbolism and motifs remain alarmingly obscure; especially in this case Esposito's cross dressing, making faces in his mirror and his morbid fixation on family-style photos and photos of hands. There is perhaps a social/political dimension driven home by repeated scenes of pickax toting workers underground on the subway, but a recurring image of a donkey being hoisted by pulleys up to the third floor had me scratching my head.

The musical score is one of the film's strongest assets, including a weird violinist on screen who serves almost a pied piper function and is essential to creating the surrealistic mood.
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10/10
a movie in jeopardy
jagerhans27 December 2006
This weird , out-of-the-schemes movie is one of the few Giulio Questi's works. Rough and poorly made, but with some sense of measure (thus very real-life-looking) it occasionally slips into the usual clichés of trash 'b' gore - horror works but the overall result is surprisingly suggestive.

It happens sometimes that obscure directors happen to make something really outstanding , only to fall back again in mediocrity for the rest of their careers (remember Tobe Hooper ?) .

This spooky and politically incorrect tale of filth and horror is almost dead and gone: the movie is impossible to find , there must be still one copy in some wet vault (the grave of old movies) and folklore says that the director himself was looking for a copy of it.
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8/10
Surreal arcana.
HumanoidOfFlesh16 April 2010
Mrs.Tarantino is the widowed wife of a poor worker from southern Italy living with her creepy son in a shabby block of industrial Milan.She plans to make money exploiting as a charlatan a crowd of rich dullards looking for supernatural advice like tarot and hand reading.The mother is an expert in magic rituals and cleverly uses it to lure her prey,while her son is a psychic.The problem arises when the son falls in love with her mother's client and uses his arcane powers to gain her love with devastating consequences...Extremely obscure and forgotten Italian horror movie with some nice surreal touches and often implied Oedipux complex.The score by Berto Pisano is fantastic with phenomenal violin motif.I hope that "Arcana" will be released on DVD soon.8 out of 10.
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3/10
Surreal Weirdness and a Donkey
e_philman21 December 2011
Warning: Spoilers
1970's Italian film is a strange trip through 1970 Italy on the verge of modernity, decay, madness and revolution. Widowed witch Mrs. Tarantino is using any method at her disposal to eke out a living as a psychic medium and healer, plying her trade with the help of her more powerfully gifted son. Disgusted by his mother's clients and her obvious use of chicanery, the son begins a late coming of age journey discovering not only who he is but also his true powers.

(**Spoiler Alert**)

The seemingly ambiguous plot is open to interpretation. I certainly can't tell you what the filmmaker wanted to convey - only what I took from it: That he son is actually a familiar created by the mother after the accidental death of the father (during the construction of a subway). The son struggles with themes of power, real magic and identity (actual and sexual). He tests his growing power of arcane knowledge on his mother's seedier clients. Then, after finding no trace of his father in the subway, he curses it by hanging a mobile over the entrance. Then he curses the city with mobiles strung from TV antennas. In the end, he decides to create another familiar in the womb of an attractive victim, which will be his bride. But she dies before it can be delivered. Then the revolution starts (because of the curse?). Or something like that.

The story is told with uncommon imagery like, but not limited to: cross-dressing, bread-men, snakes, amputation, feral children, levitating dishes, tarot cards, peeing, photo retouching, bondage, regurgitated frogs, pantyhose masks, oedipal imagery, breast slashing and a donkey in a hoist.
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8/10
Tricky but fascinating Italian surrealist horror
Bloodwank7 November 2011
One of the more obscure of Italian horrors that are still accessible, and understandably if not deservedly so, Arcana is tricky stuff. Nominally a horror film though cleaving more towards the work of Bunuel and his like, more concerned with unravelling the structures that underpin modern living than freaking out the audience. The film announces itself at the outset, what is about to unfold is not a story but a game of cards, the opening and epilogue purposefully unbelievable the aim for the audience to play well and win out in the end. So from the start one knows to pay attention, to look out for bluff and stake, for hand and poker face, this symbolic endeavour becoming literal when Tarot cards begin to figure in the plot. Well its more of a concept, its components and tangents than a conventional story, a study in a mother and son who use psychic powers to provide solace to Romes rich and needy, the mother perhaps a fraud, the son true wielder of power chafing against life and surroundings. Others are drawn in to this arrangement, strange desires are revealed as well as some pretty strange and occasionally disturbing events, but its not so much a plotted film as themed (fate, truth and falsehood, industrial decay etc), the story breaking apart in the second half to hatch meaning from confusion. Its interesting stuff albeit rather slow, powerfully brought to life by Maurizio degli Espositi as Son and Lucia Bose as Mamma. The former brings a constant feel of clammy, detached malignity, the latter affecting in a run down and rough hewn, sneaky but practical manner. They play well off each other, with unsettling undercurrents reaching a head around the halfway mark with a chilling act of violence. Writer director Giulio Questi fortunately is a master of his imagery, so though the pace is slow and visuals restrained they are near perfectly chosen, around half the strange sights contributing to the themes of the film, the other half the uncanny weirdness sprung forth from these themes. Like the bones that Son find peeking from wasteground to the backdrop of bleak tower blocks, symbol of rot just beneath city skin, compared with a bizarre incident involving frogs, expression of revolution. A little more the way of events would have gone a long way in this one, as though appropriate, the final block is lacking a little in impact. There aren't enough real jolts and though things are generally creepy enough to earn the tag of horror it really is on the fringes. And whilst an overarching theme emerges there are interesting currents that go underexplored, bits and pieces that could have been better developed. Still a film that rather fascinated me and one that has played long in my mind in the ten or so days since I saw it. One for fans of the stranger end of Italian horror and surrealism outright, others may be less impressed.
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5/10
Boing Flip Nargle Perap Wap Phweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep
Bezenby10 November 2017
For his third and last full length film, Guilio Questi mixes art-house with exploitation and leaves me feeling like one of those crazy chickens from Death Laid An Egg. Initially this seems to be a horror film about a mother and son who do tarot readings and pretend to heal folks, whilst both of them have genuine powers that the son feels should be exploited more. The actual story itself then proceeds to be buried under a barrage of surreal imagery until the film ends.

That's not to say I didn't like it though. The horror elements are presented first, with the son healing their customers as they sit in a circle babbling (one of them pishes themselves into the bargain). The son also has hundreds of pictures of hands and random people arranged in specific patterns over which the son dangles animal teeth before dressing up like his mother with a pair of tights over his head. You know, the usual stuff teenagers get into.

The son seems to take a liking to a certain girl who comes for reading regarding herself and her boyfriend. She asks the mother for a love potion but the son isn't too happy decide to make his own, but doesn't quite know how. Around this time the tarot cards start playing themselves and dishes start moving around the kitchen, which gets worse when the son ties up his mother, starts cutting her breasts with a dagger, and gets the real love recipe from her.

Although up to this point we've already witnessed people with missing limbs being arrested from a queue in a bank, characters turning around to deliberately stare into the camera, and small kids dragging an egg on a string about for no reason, nothing quite prepared me for the "Family dancing to fiddle music while the mother vomits up live frogs while subway workers try and get on a subway train but also while another fiddler plays music to a bemused donkey being hoisted up a building scene". Have I ever mentioned that Questi used to work with Fellini?

Things get even more fragmented after that but what's the point in mentioning every crazy thing that happens? This is more of a weird trip than a film, and it's a pity Questi stopped making films after this, because I'd love to have seen his art-house take on other Italian Exploitation films like the Mad Max rip-off and the Jaws rip-off!
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Unsettling but interesting anyway
tony_le_stephanois18 May 2015
A portrait of a slightly weird guy living with his mother, who is a fake clairvoyant. He is discovering his supernatural talents.

Unsettling is the right word for this film. People, waiting to collect their welfare, are being kidnapped without a reason. A metro stops in a tunnel, people start banging on the windows from the outside. Unsettling is also the relationship between the protagonist and his mother. She is hardly angry when he ties her to the bed or makes love with one of her costumers in front of her.

The second part is even less comprehensible than the first part already is. He collects stuff and people seem to get more and more crazy. It is lovely bizarre, still not the David Lynch or Luis Buñuel kind of bizarre, but sometimes not far from it. There's a fascinating piece of cinema with a monotonous gypsy player and the mother suddenly coughing up frogs. Or the one with people waiting silently outside the door, one man glances over his shoulder.

I found it hard to understand why things were happening like this. Usually films have too much explanation, this film is an example of the opposite. There's not much sense of logic. I guess one of the reasons was the unbalanced editing. Some more interesting, surreal scenes don't have enough time to work, and less interesting scenes could have been removed. Especially the final could have been better.

Nevertheless, this is a slow, but surprisingly entertaining film, subtle and yet politically incorrect. This might not come as a surprise as the director, Giulio Questi, is also the man behind a thriller on a chicken farm (Death laid an egg, 1968) and a cult western with gay cowboys (Django kill..., 1967). These were the only three films he made. He was the uncompromising kind of director and that's why his films are still unique. This film is supported with great performances and music. Lucia Bosé is very good as the over-protective mother, and Maurizio degli Esposti is just as fine as the weird son with the feminine hairdo (he only played in four films). Also Tina Aumont, famous for Fellini's Casanova, but in fact specialized in playing parts in the weirdest section of 70's cinema. I rate it 7/10 for mystery.
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7/10
for the most part an extraordinary and involving horror
Directed by Giulio Questi, he of Django Kill and Death Laid An Egg, was never going to make a straightforward film about a clairvoyant and her son in Milan. The spaghetti western included a crucifixion and a band of gay cowboys whilst the giallo included the rearing of headless chickens, so this surreal outing has its own very strange moments. For the most part though, this is very powerful and disturbing tale with the much loved Lucia Bose as the fake clairvoyant and the lovely, Tina Aumont as one of her clients. Her son, who does seem to have powers, falls for the younger woman with devastating results. As I say for the most part an extraordinary and involving horror but there is a playfulness that detracts and an ending that bemuses. great soundtrack that very much adds to the very creepy feel.
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6/10
The second half lost me
jrd_7330 July 2012
I was following Arcana for the first half. It told the story of a psychic and her son. The psychic appears to be a fake, running a con game on her clients (although she does mention that her mother was a true witch). The son is odd, sometimes dressing in women's clothes and stealing photographs from his mother's clients. The relationship between mother and son is charged with sexual tension. The story begins to change when the son becomes fixated on a pretty girl, engaged to be married, who comes to the mother for a reading. It was there the film lost me.

In the second half, the son begins to take a dominant role. Is he crazy, psychic, running a con, or some strange combination of all of these? There are flashbacks to the countryside where the mother's mother works her magic with a house full of gypsies and a donkey outside suspended in air. The film builds to an ending so grim that it could be described as apocalyptic, if it is to be taken literally. The film opens with a scrawl stating that the film is a card game and not all of it is real. I was left confused by both the ending and the film as a whole.

Arcana has much to recommend it. Lucia Bose as the mother is excellent and she gives the performance her all. In the country scene, she looks to be actually removing toads from her mouth. If that is not a special effect, then Miss Bose is one fearless actress! Furthermore, the film is eye catching with the hypnotic country scene being the stand out (catchy gypsy music too). An often intriguing film, but the ambiguity proved too much for me.
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