…around here, witches, those kind of people— they’re all hand in glove with religion.
Lucio Fulci’s haunting Don’t Torture a Duckling/Non si sevizia un paperino (1972) is widely (and deservedly) regarded as a masterpiece in his oeuvre. Many aficionados cite it as the best work of the maestro’s career. Despite the distinction, it still goes largely unsung here in the US where american audiences extol the ghastly virtues of Zombie/Zombi 2 (1979) or The Beyond/…E tu vivrai nel terrore! L’aldilà (1981), films that rightly developed into cult essentials on the heels of successful stints on the drive-in/grindhouse circuit and ensuing popularity on home video. Like many of Fulci’s earlier works, overseas export of the film was limited, explaining the unfortunate disregard by even Fulci’s most ardent fans. The film’s presence broadened in subsequent years thanks to releases by Anchor Bay in 2000 (the first ever US release), and a Blue Underground re-issue in 2007. Phenomenal UK distributor Arrow has applied its own exemplary standard to a new Blu-Ray edition, unleashing a definitive high-definition version of Fulci’s master work. The film deserves every ounce of detail Arrow has put into its presentation and extra features resulting in a fantastic introduction for the uninitiated, and an essential collectible for those well-versed in its magnificence.
The remote village of Accendura is rocked by a series of grisly child murders. A trio of mischievous local boys, Bruno, Michele, and Tonino, have each been viciously killed by an unknown assailant. A journalist from Rome called Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) collaborates with the regional police commissioner (Virgilio Gazzolo) and the village chief of police Captain Modesti (Ugo D’Allessio) in search of the culprit amid the hysteria of the villagers. There are three main suspects: Barra (Vito Passeri), the village idiot, is easiest to finger; he’s recently threatened the boys for taunting him for spying on a pair of prostitutes servicing local johns, and makes a failed attempt to extort ransom money from Bruno’s family. Alluring Milanese newcomer Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), hiding out to elude a drug scandal, is also implicated; she earns the scorn of the villagers with her modern looks and attitude, isolating herself in her loft, and teasing the young boys to alleviate her boredom. Most of the villagers, however, accuse Maciara (Florinda Bolkan), a reclusive woman who dwells in the mountains with Francesco (Georges Wilson) a practitioner of black magic. Native Francesco is a celebrity of sorts in Accendura, and Modesti mentions that, “people come from all over Italy to see Francesco,” for his faith healing. Even though Francisco shelters Maciara, she’s never been accepted by the community due to her outsider status and dark history associated with her arrival there as a young girl making her a target of resentment. This assortment of complex, flawed characters serve as more than “red herrings” for the plot; they allow Fulci to explore themes of paranoia, xenophobia, misogyny, and patriarchal control, this collection of “others” serving conveniently as scapegoats for the crimes.
The film opens with a breathtaking shot, a panoramic view as the cinema eye sweeps across mountain tops. The camera follows along the path of an elevated highway, Accendura’s only link to modernity, gradually closing in on Maciara digging up the skeletal remains of an infant. As her bloodied hands claw through the earth to Ritz O’rtalani’s jarring music, and we are instantly and magnificently unnerved. It’s a moment that encapsulates perfectly the intensely intimate moments Fulci juxtaposes with the film’s grander orchestrations. The film is one of Fulci’s most tightly-constructed works, lucidly written, and moving freely through its atmospheric setting. The rustic village presided over by the mountains is a perfectly isolated cinematic landscape for the sinister and brutal acts that unfold. O’rtalani’s original score, as well as the stunning work of popular Italian singer Ornella Vanoni, permeate the film. Though no supernatural acts transpire, the music imbues the imagery with otherworldly power.
Fulci has never shied from controversy, and was often heavily censored for his unflinching depictions of gruesome violence and risqué eroticism in potent films like Lizard in a Woman’s Skin/Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (1971). The power of Don’t Torture a Duckling resides on a different plane; the visceral aspects are there to support the central themes, elements of discourse that are capable of throttling the viewer on their own merits, but hitting especially hard with visual punch. Here, Fulci tackles a multitude of taboos: child murder and pedophilia is used to shed light on systems of oppression and exploitation, and resulting acts of cruelty wrought from paranoia and prejudicial judgement. The film also demonstrates how old world superstition intertwines with Christianity, a way of keeping tradition alive while submitting to a dominant ideology, a huge source of moralistic conflict where hypocrisy can flourish. Noted Pagan scholar Raven Grimassi summarizes this complex marriage in his book Italian Witchcraft:
Wrapped safely in the Roman Catholic celebrations of modern Italy lay the Pagan traditions that have connected humankind with the cycles of Nature since the time of our saints. Yet among the small isolated covens of hereditary Witch families, and the solitary Witches of remote Italian villages, the Old Religion remains unbroken, still clinging fragilely to the present. (Grimassi 66)
In a separate article entitled Roots of Italian Witchcraft on the website stregheria.com, Grimassi notes the integration of old world, women-centric religions into newer beliefs coming from outside sources, something Fulci is sensitive to in the film:
The origins of Italian Witchcraft go deeply into the past of the pre-Christian era. The earliest forms were no doubt rooted in primitive ideas about magic and spirit beings. But over time the concepts comprising Italian Witchcraft evolved. As elements of foreign beliefs in magic were absorbed in Italy, indigenous beliefs were influenced by them over time. This did not eradicate the old traditions or replace them, but almost certainly changes various elements were integrated. (stregheria.com)
Throughout the film, Fulci gives us examples of women’s diminished power, shown in the ways they are treated harshly in the investigation, especially when viewed side-by-side with the treatment of Barra and Francesco who are interrogated less severely by authorities. Within Fulci’s framework, it makes sense that Patrizia and Maciara would be ostracized (and subject to a witch hunt in the case of Maciara), as they both operate outside of the expected norms the men of the village demand of their servile women (and whom some women may wish to emulate). Fulci is often (and unfairly) accused of misogyny, and here he seizes the opportunity to rail against the very sort of heinous behavior perpetrated by oppressive patriarchal institutions. The film is his platform to discuss the misogynistic tendencies dominating Accendura’s culture, a fictional village representing real places throughout his native country. Fulci was no misogynist, but he was certainly a pessimist, and it’s fascinating to watch the gender dynamics play out with Fulci’s added layer of class difference. Patrizia is the object of scorn, but her status as the daughter of a wealthy former villager protects her from harsher treatment. Maciara isn’t so lucky; with little trust in outsider authorities, the vengeful villagers take matters into their own hands. Patrizia escapes retribution, but Maciara receives their wrath in a most cruel manner. As Kat Ellinger (editor-in-chief Diabolique; Daughters of Darkness podcast) states in her accompanying video essay Hell is Already in Us, Fulci takes a “critical stance against the animal nature of man in all its ugliness,” and this moment of retribution is certainly one of the ugliest and most sobering scenes in cinema.
The presence of the Catholic church – embodied by the young priest character Don Alberto (Marc Poreli) – is integral to the film’s central conflict. He is the conduit through which Fulci’s themes flow, particularly when observing his relationship with his dour mother Aurelia (Irene Papas), and her position in the community where a character comments, “we only respect her because she’s the priest’s mother.” Religious iconography dominates the film in the art design and shot compositions, with depictions of a crucified Christ looming over the characters; any semblance of a holy presence fails the characters in their final moments. The film also offers a fascinating look at old world superstition and religion clashing with media sensationalism, these entities mingling in an atmosphere of confusion that leads to the destruction of characters with no hard evidence against them, and receiving no trial. Fulci’s observations about the role of religion in destroying innocent lives is just one part powering the complex engine, elements amplified by the remote setting of Accendura. It is ultimately, however, Christianity holding the rod that distributes punishment.
Don’t Torture a Duckling displays the underpinnings of the traditional giallo, but challenges the them in powerful ways. By setting the film in a remote village, Fulci removes the story dynamics from the usual cosmopolitan settings, stripping the story of the bourgeoisie sensibilities – the fashionable houses, clothing, and general bustle of hip city life, normally serving as the backdrop. The sombre approach and the disquieting rural setting urges the viewer into the folk sensibilities cultivated by Fulci. Fulci’s focus on child murder, especially boys, is also a huge departure, and the film works equally as well as a perverse anti-coming-of-age story where the stirrings of youth and temptation, especially those of a sexual nature, lead not to maturity and adulthood, but to destruction.
Arrow’s treatment of the film is fabulous, offering a 1080p high definition transfer in a 2:35:1 aspect ratio that begs a watch on the widest screen possible. Arrow’s technicians went through many challenges in their painstaking quest to restore the film to its original color palette. Their efforts result in a captivating picture that improves upon prior releases, and the film’s rich color scheme is even more breathtaking than imaginable. The detail is equally impressive in the dark areas, and scenes taking place in the caves, especially closeups of Maciara pushing pins into voodoo dolls look splendidly detailed (pay attention to sparkling pools of water!) It’s a glorious treatment of Sergio D’Offizi’s (Cannibal Holocaust (1980)) spellbinding photography.
This set boasts incredible supplemental features: there’s astute audio commentary by Troy Howarth (So Deadly, So Perverse; Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and his Films) who offers fascinating historical insights mined from his deep knowledge of European cinema and Fulci’s work in particular; as mentioned, Kat Ellinger presents an illuminating video essay entitled Hell is Within Us, and her thoughtful arguments shatter any notions that Fulci was misogynistic in his approach to his material; Mikel J. Koven (La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film) sheds light on the cultural value of the film, especially in terms of cinematic language, in a video discussion entitled The Blood of Innocents. These are packaged with wonderful insert essays by Barry Forshaw and Howard Hughes, and fabulous bonus interviews with Florinda Bolkan, Sergio O’Ffizi, Bruno Micheli, Maurizio Trani, and Lucio Fulci himself. Wrapping this lovely collection is evocative reversible sleeve art by Timothy Pittides.
This edition of Don’t Torture a Duckling ranks as one of Arrow’s best releases, an absolute stunning presentation of one of Italy’s most ferocious films. It’s absolutely essential viewing not only for fans of Giallo and Italian horror cinema, but anyone interested in the hypnotic power of disquieting transgressive film. It’s a lovely work of brutality that remains as relevant as ever, and an impressively reverential treatment honoring Fulci’s masterpiece to an astounding degree.
SOURCES AND WORKS CITED
Grimassi, Raven. Italian Witchcraft: The Old Religion of Southern Europe. Llewellyn Publications, 2015 (original printing published in 1995).
Grimassi, Raven. The Roots of Italian Witchcraft. www.stregheria.com. www.stregheria.com/Roots%20of%20Italian%20Witchcraft-.htm. Accessed 21, Sept. 2017.
Kedeshim. Southern Italian Traditionalist Craft. WitchVox.com. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usma&c=trads&id=11544. Accessed on 20, Sept 2017.