Bernard, a writer, arrives in a remote Italian town looking for a woman, Tilde, he had a brief affair with. But upon arrival he learns that she had committed suicide. There is, of course, more to the story, as Bernard discovers, as he descends into a twisted mystery.
Written and directed by Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini, The Possessed aka La Donna Del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) is an early giallo film, coming two years after Mario Bava released The Evil Eye. The giallo (meaning yellow in Italian, named for the cheap and lurid yellow paperback mystery novels) as we know it now, would be more associated with Technicolor nightmare mysteries with wild twist endings, like Bava’s Blood and Black Lace or Dario Argento’s Suspiria. But the roots of giallo lie in noire films and the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The Possessed is a slow paced, moody, and atmospheric film that owes more to the artful cinema of Fellini or Pasollini, than any detective film. In Bazzoni and Rossellini’s hands, a black and white film becomes as lush and beautiful as any in color. Its pace is so deliberately measured that it creates a natural dread. Bazzoni and Rossellini draw the story out in long, introspective takes, mixing film grain in dreams and fantasies. They lay bare the human soul, showing it can be as deep and dark as the shadows they create on film.
But have you even heard of this film? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t. When it opened in the summer of 1965, it received mixed to negative reviews and then suffered a spotty release over the years on VHS. It was during its theatrical run in Britain in ’66 that the title was changed from La Donna Del Lago to the punchier The Possessed. Though it initially fared poorly among critics, it has since come to be recognized for the strong work it really is, making the list of Top 150 Giallo films, according to the Letterboxd community.
The Possessed is actually an adaptation of Giovanni Comissi’s book on the real life Alleghe Killings, one of Italy’s most notorious crimes, starting with the murder of a maid named Emma, which was sloppily staged to look like a suicide, followed by a handful of other connected murders to cover up an affair a father and son were carrying out with the same woman. Giulio Questi (Death Laid an Egg) co wrote the screenplay with Bazzoni and Rossellini. I use the term adaptation loosely, because even though the mystery of the truth behind Tilde’s death is the engine of the story, what we really get is a nod to French New Wave in the way the camera follows Bernard’s emotional deep dive into the village’s dirty secrets. And while, as a writer, not a detective, it points toward the giallo trope of a mystery being pursued by an ordinary person off the street, the filmmakers always keep it personal to Bernard, we only ever know what he knows, and sometimes what he “knows” is what he puts together through flashes of memory, dreams, and fantasies. It creates shades of Argento’s dream-logic, but Bazzoni and Rossellini always pull the story back down to earth, never letting the surreal overtake the narrative.
As the narrative goes, it’s a thin plot, but actor Peter Baldwin carries the film with his dark and weary glare. In fact, I’d venture to say you could shut the sound off and just play a Joy Division record over the film and get just as much enjoyment out of it. That’s not a knock.
I can’t stress enough how beautiful Arrow Video’s new Blu-Ray is. It’s a brand new 2k scan from the original negative. Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas provides an audio commentary and Richard Dwyer gives an appreciation of the film. While there is both the Italian soundtrack with English subtitles as well as an English overdub, I can not recommend the dub. It’s just really unwatchable to me. It changes the whole film. Maybe you’ve seen the European cut of Deep Red, with the scenes cut back in that were never overdubbed into English? You see how the tone shifts from a smiley/smarmy tone in English to a more serious one in Italian. Same thing here. Watch the original Italian to really feel the weight of this film.