Originally ran on FilmThreat.com on 04/15/08
“They were chopping off their bollocks with their own hands.” – Alberto Cavallone on the Italian censors
The unique cinema of Alberto Cavallone was forged from the turbulent times during the mid-Seventies when Italy was subjected to political chaos, scandal and upheaval, terrorism and murder, rising street crime and a nation’s sense of fear and anxiety. Known as “Anni di Piombo,” or the Leaden Years, Italian film began to reflect the country’s mood for revolutionary cinema – notably after the decline of the spaghetti western – where the bourgeoisie were learning of the younger generation’s extreme viewpoints and political ambitions. There was a need for change and genre cinema, being the most commercial, flourished in that it reflected what the public demanded to see. The Italian “poliziotteschi” crime movie, those featuring the likes of Franco Nero and Maurizio Merli, who used their .38 Specials to blow away politicians, gangs and murderers who escaped the corrupt justice system, snowballed into a highly lucrative genre that fuelled the public’s desire to see the everyman wipe away scum and to liberate the streets (interestingly predating Michael Winner’s 1974 “Death Wish”).
Also, sex became a phenomenon in magazines and comic strips that predictably infiltrated the Italian film industry. Softcore comedies, often starring curvaceous beauties such as Edwich Fenech and Gloria Guida, became highly popular for home consumption although a number sold overseas. In turn, these “slap and tickle” titillation movies influenced genre directors such as Aristide Massacessi (aka “Joe D’Amato”) to lens their own soft pictures that led to hardcore which proved to be financially beneficial for the international market. Porn and exploitation was an obvious crossover and the brief run of the Italian Nazi movie included hardcore inserts for various territories such as Cesare Canevari’s “L’ultima orgia del III Reich/Gestapo’s Last Orgy” (1977). Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film after his “Trilogy of Life” series was “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma/Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (1975), that although shocked audiences for its graphic portrayal of violence, sexual degradation and torture, influenced independent Italian filmmakers into producing their own cannon of colourful and fetishist cinema, however severe and unsuitable for public consumption by the authorities. Alberto Cavallone, like Polselli – both well-read and intellectual men – were able to voice their art house narrative on politics and social context behind a veil of sensationalistic cinema with a punch. During the Seventies, Italian genre independent film was to spiral to new depths of depravity and high creativity, stunning audience-goers and infuriating the censor.
Little is known of Alberto Cavallone and his movies: some being lost or damaged. His unorthodox working methods, eccentric and anarchic film style, as well as the majority of his films never being released outside Italy, saw that his genius was to be curtailed by the home censor and limited distribution. Unlike Polselli and Jesus Franco, Cavallone was never to achieve the recognition as an auteur with his own sense of cinéma vérité. Like his protagonists, Cavallone’s films were to go further in the extreme, portraying women in peril or sex objects as a one fingered salute towards authority whilst appeasing the adult crowd: suffice to say, his last movies were to be hardcore porn, with “Blue Movie” (1978) being Cavallone’s Rubicon.
After honing his craft on a number of commercials, Cavallone’s first film was “La sporca guerra/The Dirty War,” which was shot between 1959 and 1960. Aged seventeen (his grandmother lying to his parents stating that he was away with friends so he could make his film), Cavallone shot the movie on 16mm, a film based on the Algerian War of Independence when the country was rocked by civil war from 1954 to 1962. The young and intrepid filmmaker shot risqué footage of combat and explosions before moving to Paris in 1958 to lens terrorist activity, notably in Billancourt where he filmed three people who had just been hanged. Controversy – to be Cavallone’s thumbprint – hit the fifty minute film on its immediate release when Italian communists were outraged by its political content and demanded alterations to be made: Cavallone refused. “La sporca guerra,” its only remaining print believed to be stored in Milan, also features one of Pino Donaggio’s first scores.
“Lontano dagli occhi/Far from the Eyes” (1962) was a pseudo-documentary shot in Frankfurt, one of the first movies to chronicle a trial against Nazis who it was alleged committed acts against humanity such as the horrors of the concentration camps and the use of Zyclone B in the gas chambers. Shot on a shoestring (Cavallone and crew took turns to drive when others slept on their trip to Germany), the film never received distribution and the negatives that were stored in Milan were lost in the sands of time. In the mid-Sixties after earning a crust making commercials, he was tempted to pack his bags for Rome by maverick producer Franco Cristaldi, where he would get his foot in the door in the film industry by writing screenplays as Ennio De Concini’s assistant; Concini had penned such works as Mario Bava’s “La Maschera del demonio/Black Sunday” (1960), Lucio Fulci’s “I Quattro dell’apocalisse/Four Gunmen of the Apocalypse” (1975), Tinto Brass’s “Salon Kitty” (1976) and Roberto Faenza’s “Copkiller/Order of Death” (1983).
Cavallone was then permitted to write under his own name for Dino Risi’s “L’Ombrellone/Weekend, Italian Style” (1966), Duccio Tessari’s “Per amore… per magia…/For Love… for Magic” (1967) and Mikhail Kalatozov’s “Krasnaya Palatka/The Red Tent” (1969) before working fulltime on his own movie, “Le Salamandre/The Salamander” in 1969. Inspired by the writings of writer Fritz Fanon, who believed that a colonial population could only reach freedom by declaring violence towards their occupiers, Cavallone’s tale sees a white photographer (Erna Schurer) who seduces a black model (the lovely ebony Beryl Cunningham). A doctor then arrives on the scene – Anthony Vernon (Antonio Casale) who took his pseudo from Jesus Franco stalwart Howard Vernon – and Schurer falls for his charms. Outraged, Cunningham kills the photographer and the doctor. “Le Salamandre” received a critical drubbing in Italy although it was a hit at the box-office where it cost around nine thousand pounds to make and scooped a staggering four hundred and twenty-four thousand in return; in an age when a cinema ticket cost fifty pence. As his first commercial movie, Cavallone believed its success to be a disgrace stating, “The first movie must be unsuccessful. Only this can make the second a more successful movie!”
Cavallone achieved another homegrown hit with “Dal nostro inviato a Copenhagen/From Our Copenhagen’s Correspondent” in 1970 where two American soldiers fresh from the Vietnam War are haunted by the atrocities that they witnessed and committed while on a vacation in Copenhagen, Denmark. Based on true events where a number of American soldiers were granted two to three months in Wiesbaden, Germany, to purge the violence they had inside, done or had suffered as a consequence of their actions, “Dal nostro inviato a Copenhagen” is lazy filmmaking from a technical point-of-view, as if Cavallone discovered the zoom on the first day (something that he had admitted). Dull and unengaging, it’s a film where nothing really happens despite the presence of Cavallone’s stunning waif-like wife Jane Avril (aka Maria Pia Luzi) who he would later divorce. Interestingly, in a method he would use later with some his more controversial pictures, Cavallone intercuts his film with disturbing documentary footage from the Vietnam conflict of burning villages and mutilated corpses, with bizarrely staged action set in rural Italy to compliment its Asian backdrop, as would Antonio Margheriti implement in the Philippines with “L’ultimo cacciatore/The Last Hunter” (1980), “Fuga dall’archipelago maledetto/Tiger Joe” (1982) and “Tornado” (1983). “Dal nostro inviato a Copenhagen… Horrible title, absolutely s**t,” Cavallone had accused his producers of changing its original title from “Così U.S.A” (“So U.S.A.” reads as “That’s the way it goes”) as they had felt that it was too strong considering the My Lai Massacre. Said en masse slaughter of Vietnamese civilians by US troops, mostly women and children, on March 16, 1968 prompted widespread outrage, and the producers got cold feet realizing that Cavallone’s bloody and unflinching finale predated the bloodbath: so much so, they demanded to cut the movie. Cavallone believed that the producers wanted to filter his antiwar message and political ambitions in a crude and direct way, as the director called it, a new “dirty war.” In typical Cavallone flourish and disregard for sensibilities, “They were chopping off their bollocks with their own hands!” An obscure film that received a limited domestic homevideo release, not much is known of the materials or cast such as Alain N Kalsjy (Walter Fabrizio), who after completing the shoot, it was believed left for India to buy and sell local craftwork.
A year later, Cavallone returned with his best-looking movie: “Quickly, spari e baci a colazione/Quickly, Shootings and Kisses for Breakfast,” a bizarre and surreal slapstick action movie with Terry Gilliam inspired animations (by Cavallone himself) spliced throughout the movie with no regard for comprehension. A diamond heist with colorful characters and crisp cinematography, the humor is best described as unsophisticated Terence Hill and Bud Spencer larks complemented by crude animation, a bright and jazzy score by Cavallone regular composer Franco Potenza and a bevy of stunning women: Maria Pia Luzi, Beryl Cunningham, Magda Konopka and Claudie Lange – what’s not to like in a commercial movie with experimental qualities? With “Zelda” (1974), Cavallone described “Quickly, spari e baci a colazione” as a “mercenary movie”, or in other words, “messed up, because it couldn’t be otherwise than that way,” with monies attributed from Italy, Morocco and Tunisia.
Cavallone returned in 1973 with “Afrika,” a violent examination of male homosexuality in a time when it was considered taboo, where Ivano Staccioli and his lover engage in a self-destructive relationship against the background of Africa. Typically Cavallone, the film starts with a naked white woman who is tortured by having a lit cigarette extinguished on one of her breasts by a black soldier, and is then shot in the vagina by machine gun fire. A male protagonist is raped in unflinching and uncomfortable detail and the film is graced with much in the way of female nudity – if it wasn’t for the director’s claims that he had made a social document on homosexuality, “Afrika” could have been rubber-stamped as an exploitation film, which it is. Cavallone claimed he made a major mistake by casting Staccioli for lead – who would later appear as a Gestapo kingpin in Bruno Mattei’s “KZ9 – Lager di sterminio/Women’s Camp 119” (1977) – as he did not realize that the actor was homosexual before shooting commenced. The outspoken artist claimed that he would have chosen someone else as, “an actor can’t play himself, unless he’s at [Dirk] Bogarde’s level,” was “a bit above the line,” and to nail his colors firmly on the mast: “he wasn’t good enough, anyway.” Filmed mainly in Ethiopia, the production was plagued by incidents as the country was going through a turbulent change of regime. Witnessing cruel atrocities around them, Cavallone and crew were arrested for ten days and constantly paid unpleasant visits by the police and army. Indeed, during a scene where a boy is kidnapped in a town square, Cavallone was thrown into a cell for two days where his interrogators who once spoke in Italian, refused to converse with him unless it was in their native tongue – the Italian eyeing edgy guards sporting machine guns and tools of torture, never knew if would face the firing squad. Understandably, Cavallone hated everything about “Afrika” due to what happened on the shoot, which was just as well as it flopped at the box-office; the public hated it. Most prints have been lost but a scratchy 8mm version is in circulation that has lost much of its color and is missing twenty minutes of footage from the eighty-five minute theatrical release.
The retrospective about forgotten Italian maverick Alberto Cavallone continues in Part Two of The Perverse, Deranged and Lost Movies of Alberto Cavallone>>>