Director: Liliana Cavani
Cast: Pierre Clementi, Britt Ekland, Tomas Milian
Length: 87 min
Label: Raro Video via Kino Lorber
Release Date: January 14, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: Italian: PCM Linear 2.0
Interview with the director (26’ 16”)
Original theatrical trailer
Fully illustrated booklet
Since the Lumière brothers, cinema has developed as a photographic medium linked to literature and theatre. The historic contention over whether films can be artworks has its roots in editing. The second two shots are stitched together meaning is derived from the suture. Audiences today are especially media savvy, trained to unconsciously derive meaning from juxtaposition and to see narrative through this process. For this reason, art film often directly challenges how audiences perceive a story should be told.
Enter the 60s, French New Wave, and cinematic “rule breaking.” Released on Blu-ray by Raro Video, Liliana Cavani’s 1970 I Cannibali (“The Year of the Cannibals”) is very reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) or Masculin Féminin (1966), only far less groundbreaking. It breaks the rules in all the ways audiences hate; when they feel incidental or like mistakes. However, the film is a rather intriguing anomaly for anyone interested in post-Italian neorealist cinema from that “wacky” late 60s/70s period. Through this lens, I Cannibali is far more interesting as a product of its time than it is as a film. Its special features and interview with Cavani, in fact, confirm this.
Having nothing to do with cannibals (other than metaphorically), the film is a loose modern day adaptation of “Antigone,” the Greek tragedy by Sophocles. It was shot in early 1969 mostly in the center of Milan without any official permission. In I Cannibali, the character of Antigone is played by Britt Ekland, better known as “the Bond girl” in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and for her role in the British horror cult classic The Wicker Man (1973). Like the original story, Antigone is unable to bury her brother. This time, however, it’s because the state forbids people to move the corpses of enemies of the state or something. Because of this, the streets are littered with hundreds of dead bodies as Antigone and others walk aimlessly around Italy. To move her brother’s corpse, Antigone teams up with an aloof and seemingly mute hippie named Tiresias (played by Pierre Clémenti who arrived on set right from detox according to Ms. Cavani). Mistaking his silence for depth, Antigone grows enamored with Tiresias and the two start moving corpses all over Milan. But their fun and games are short lived, as the neo-fascist State finally steps in and destroys whatever mission these flower children had. Still the revolution lives on at the end with the promise of hope glimmering in the future of a now retro-dystopian Italia.
In the context of the late 1960s, I Cannibali certainly echoes the zeitgeist of the New Left in Europe. To this end, the film maintains a kind of historicity for this period. Ms. Cavani believes her film was a “tragic prophecy” in many respects. Several months after its release, an explosion at a bank in Milan would kill 19 people, wounding over 80 others and was subsequently blamed on leftist students. Although the event was actually perpetuated by two neo-Fascists who fled the country, the incident presaged groups like the Red Army Faction (RAF) and other left-wing militant groups that arose out of the vanguardism that so characterized the era. If nothing else, I Cannibali is an odd snapshot of a very tumultuous time in European culture.
The film suffers because of its experimental narrative. Whenever directors experiment with narrativity and explore new aspects of traditional storytelling, they walk a fine line. Many fail — in fact, the overwhelming majority fail. Even those who succeed in certain cases fail in others. I Cannibali simply falls flat due to its characters not being compelling and often coming off as too alien, although their plight is very human. You want to have empathy for characters that are forced to leave their loved ones on the streets like dogs. Instead, Cavani’s created landscape is so abnormal and offbeat that her characters exist in a bizzaro world that is intended to demonstrate the themes of the film for you. It looks and sounds like late 1960s Italy, but the people there clearly act like they are from Saturn. This would be okay if it was executed more forcefully, but instead the overall performances fall flat and are lackluster at best. Britt Ekland, Tomas Milian, and Marino Masé are underused and feel undersold in I Cannibali.
Audio & Video
The great thing about companies like Raro Video is that they have found a niche issuing unreleased or forgotten rarities of Italian cinema greats like Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marco Bellochio on Blu-ray. Liliana Cavani certainly belongs with this group and their reissue of I Cannibali is a much welcomed addition to their extensive assortment of re-releases. That said, the HD transfer itself is not ideal. Colors are robust and well saturated. Black levels are very strong, almost too much so, at times. Contrast is strong, if somewhat variable, which looks to be inherent in the film print used. The presence of film grain varies from scene to scene and fine detail is very variable also. At times, this transfer almost resembles an upscaled DVD in it’s lack of texture. Undoubtedly, this the best that I Cannibali has ever looked on home video, and these caveats should not deter one from experiencing it.
The audio is presented very truthfully to the source material. That is, no audio filtering or enhancements seem to have been used. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track is very clear and has a reasonably good range, which allows Ennio Morricone’s score to make a proper impact.
Although the release is lacking on special features, it does include a 26 minute interview with the director and the original theatrical trailer for the film. In addition to this, the disc is accompanied by a fully illustrated booklet.
I Cannibali did compete in the Quinzaines des Realisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) section of the 23rd Cannes Film Festival. Cavani is more remembered by her 1974’s controversial Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter) and her following films than she is for anything from this period. Still, for those of you who are fans of Cavani and her intellectual themes, I Cannibali represents a budding filmmaker finding her own artistic voice in the boy’s club that is filmmaking. It is not a terrible film, but a puzzling one to those who expect a more conventional narrative.