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.