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Visions in a Woman’s Skin – The women of Lucio Fulci

Claims of misogyny were levelled at Italian genre director Lucio Fulci throughout the latter part of his career, where the stalwart of comedies and gialli began to work exclusively in the horror genre. These claims have continued long after his death, from both critics of his work and some of the actors he worked with.

It was largely The New York Ripper (1982), Fulci’s bleak, nihilistic giallo about sexual perversion and sadistic violence perpetrated against women that earned him this reputation. The extreme sexualized violence in Ripper is brutal and frequent, as the film’s largely peripheral women characters suffer sexual assault, humiliation, torture and death at the hands the film’s male antagonists.

Looking beyond The New York Ripper, there is ample evidence in Fulci’s filmography to refute this criticism of the director and his works. Based on testimony from his actors, it may be that Fulci took a patronizing or disparaging view of women at times, and certainly he was guilty of some chauvinistic tendencies, as were many men of his generation, in Italy and elsewhere. Misogynist, however, is a much stronger term; it suggests one who despises or is strongly prejudiced against women. Given that the starring roles in the most celebrated films of his oeuvre were given to women, and that they occupied the most complex and rich characters within his works, it becomes difficult to reconcile Fulci with the term misogynist.

Much has been made of modern feminist horror, as in recent years more women directors have finally found themselves with the opportunity to present genre movies from female perspectives (though still not nearly enough). Recent years have seen fantastically well-received genre entries from the likes of Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; The Bad Batch), Coralie Fargeat (Revenge), Natalia Leite (MFA) and Sophia Takal (Always Shine; Black Christmas).

Vincent Bec is cautious in overly celebrating what appear to be feminist narratives but, at times, tend to reinforce patriarchy and gender stereotypes. In Bec’s critique of (amongst others) Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), the celebration of a “female vampire in an Iranian ghost town punishing men, helping sex workers, and warning little boys to behave, all while wearing a black chador” 1 (p29) is ultimately cut short when she allows a man she has just met to change the direction of her life. After all her brave feminist actions, she becomes subservient to a man; an appendage.  This theme unfortunately continues in Amirpour’s 2016 follow up, The Bad Batch, where the emotionally and physically resilient heroine ends the film in a submissive relationship with her abuser.

Bec goes on to discuss the demonization of femininity, and how women are often othered through connecting them to monsters (again, Amirpour’s The Bad Batch comes to mind, as does Robert Eggers’ 2015 debut The Witch and Ari Aster’s Hereditary), something that genre cinema has always been guilty of, and continues to present to audiences even in this modern age of socially conscious cinema. Bec urges us to engage critically before determining what is feminist horror, warning that by over-inflating the importance of certain roles and films, the feminist standard that pushes representation for groups forward is prone to being watered down, its progress cut painfully short. This commentary is important to note when considering the representation of women in Fulci’s films, and the value of his women characters.

When it came to his female actors, Fulci praised them and their work: “Starting with Florinda Bolkan, Virna Lisi, Jennifer O’Neill, Mimsy Farmer, and Lynn Frederick, I’ve always had some good actresses.  But a note of merit goes to Catriona…MacColl, one of the actresses I worked best with”. 2 (p71) The Roman enjoyed working with women throughout his career, and the celebrated roles in his most seminal films are all occupied by women. The director wanted to go beyond the ‘sexy victim’ and ‘blonde in peril’ tropes used by many of his peers, instead providing women with rich, deep characterisations and empowering, rewarding arcs that did not pander to misogynistic or patriarchal ideals. The women of Fulci’s films were not just victims of horror but also of mankind, and actively fought back against both. By looking at a number of these characters, littered throughout Fulci’s filmography, a picture begins to emerge of a filmmaker who wrote and directed complex, challenging and staunchly feminist roles for women actors to portray.

Beatrice Cenci (Beatrice Cenci, 1969)

Looking back as far as 1969’s Beatrice Cenci, Fulci’s upbringing in a matriarchal household and the influence of the women in his life is evident, as is his fondness for active female protagonists in his work. Beyond the surrealism, horror and provocation, Cenci is most notable for the reverent portrayal of its central character. Though based on the real life legend, Fulci’s Beatrice Cenci is of course a dramatization, a combination of facts and folklore, of matter and mythology.

Its central character is demonized by the patriarchy, and ultimately dies at its hand, but at no point does she exist in thrall to a man, nor become a monster (and is certainly not passive). Adrienne Larussa’s Cenci is a woman of stark contrasts: young yet mature; vulnerable yet steely; innocent yet brutal. She is subjected to barbaric cruelty at the hands of Georges Wilson’s wicked Francesco, enjoys moments of tenderness with Tomas Milian’s Olimpio, and becomes the mastermind of her father’s demise with a detached manner that shows courage, resilience and emotional strength rarely seen in the roles women are allowed to occupy in genre cinema.

That Cenci is also one of Fulci’s (and Italy’s) most revered heroines is evident throughout the film, Fulci’s treatment of the character serves as a compelling argument to refute any accusations of misogyny. Cenci is but one of several instances of the Pasolini influence on Fulci, using gender roles in the service of otherness in order to subvert patriarchy rather than reinforce it. Unlike in the films of Amirpour, Eggers and other modern directors, it is the male characters of Beatrice Cenci and The New York Ripper that are marginalized antagonists, while Fulci’s frequent female protagonists are centralised as a representation of regeneration and renewal.

Maciara (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972)

It is unusual for an actor to receive top billing in a film’s opening credits and across all of its promotional materials when the character they play meets their end midway through the film, but such is the case of Florinda Bolkan in 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling. It is Tomas Milian’s reporter that functions as the chief protagonist, with Barbara Bouchet’s sexually liberated out of towner as his sidekick and the film’s eye candy, yet it is Argentinian-born Bolkan whose name is given prominence, and her face that adorns posters, lobby cards, DVD and Blu-ray covers the world over.

Florinda Bolkan’s witch is the beating heart and fragile soul of the film: she is naiveté, superstition, innocence and ignorance in one human form. This pariah, supposedly a witch (and certainly inspired by the ‘possessed’ character Puri in Brunello Rondi’s controversial 1967 gothic neorealist film Il Demonio) is equal parts aberrant and tragic, a source of fear but also of pity, and an anachronistic figure that we nonetheless mourn the loss of when she is cruelly dispatched by the patriarchs of the fictional Accendura region at the film’s halfway point.

Once more, Fulci borrows from Italy’s greatest cinematic poet, Pasolini. This time, it is in the ‘Centrality of Face’ filming technique. Ostensibly an extreme close up, held for several moments, it invites the audience to connect with the character’s face in much the same way as we do with the physical landscape of the film as well as its themes and ideas. 3 At frequent junctures, Maciara’s wearied, world-beaten face fills the screen, and we are invited to explore the topography of her visage, furthering the link between her and the film’s setting (the Italian South) and its themes (the erosion of innocence: both by the encroaching modernity of the north, and the murderous priest Don Alberto). Just as, in the opening moments of the film, we linked Maciara with the very earth, as her fingers ploughed the soil in search of the skeleton of her infant child, we now consider her face as a proxy for the landscape itself: the rolling hills of her cheeks, the lines on her forehead like cracks in the sun-baked soil. Maciara IS the Italian south, and all that it represents in Fulci’s film.

This importance is placed upon Maciara’s character once again in her final moments. After she is cruelly beaten in the churchyard, she drags her trembling body up the hill, to die at the same spot where her child’s remains lie in their shallow grave. There, as she clings to a rock at the edge of the Autostrada, her face fills the screen for a final time. Cars pass on the invading motorway, their inhabitants no more aware of her than they are of the rolling hills, lush greenery and centuries of history around them.

Viola Orlando/Rosa Orlando (La Pretora, 1976)

It is one of genre cinema’s greatest shames that Edwige Fenech, the raven haired, expressive actor of a number of gialli and comedy films is principally remembered for her body, and for being in an almost perpetual state of undress.

The French-Algerian actor, born to a Sicilian mother and Maltese father, broke out thanks to her performance in Hans Schott-Schöbinger’s Madame Bovary (1969). She went on to have a ubiquitous presence in Italian genre cinema in the 1970s, starring in the productions of Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Andrea Bianchi and Marino Girolami amongst many others.

In Fulci’s erotic comedy Fenech plays arguably her most nuanced role, even if it is not one that is particularly well known by fans. She occupies dual characters, twin sisters Viola and Rosa Orlando who are the film’s chief protagonist and secondary antagonist, respectively. Viola is a magistrate in Vèneto, one of Italy’s most northern regions, and is an inflexible moral crusader and champion of justice. Early on in the film, Viola most view a scandalous film that is about to be released, and make a decision as to whether the filmmakers should be prosecuted for obscenity. In the scene, her male counterparts all succumb to the sexual content of the film (which is at the same time being secretly watched by half the town, the projectionist having snuck them into his booth), but Viola remains stoic and unmoved. While her colleagues are driven to distraction by the onscreen images of fellatio, sodomy and masturbation, an unruffled Viola notes the pornographic acts and the statutes under which they should be prosecuted. Here, Viola is shown to be a consummate professional: clearly incorruptible, a fierce, formidable protagonist who frequently rises above the pathetic, weak-willed men of the so-called patriarchy.

In Rosa, Fenech plays the complete opposite – or at least appears to. This sister is a porn star and jezebel, in thrall to any man that appears in her life and is willing to look after her financially. All too corruptible, she is manipulated by the film’s main antagonist into posing as her sister in order to have her removed from office. Frequently naked, and speaking in a high-pitched, ditzy tone, Rosa is a pastiche of the roles Fenech found herself typecast in, and the actor willingly gives herself to it, offering a sharp and satirical caricature of her appearances in exploitation films such as Five Dolls for an August Moon and Giovanna Long-Thigh.

Yet there is more to Rosa. She is slowly revealed to be rather canny herself. Schooled in attracting and using men (she boasts “When I like a man, I just take him. That’s all.”), she can recognise a red jaguar driven by a wealthy mark simply from the sound of its engine. Rosa is familiar with Beethoven, and has the sexual stamina to exhaust any man she decides to bed. She executes the scam upon her sister perfectly, and the man apparently pulling her strings proves to be naive and mistaken when he is eventually apprehended and charged with his crimes, while Rosa gets away with her role in the shenanigans.

The screenplay is written, in part, by Laura Toscano (along with her husband Franco Marotta and dialogue man Franco Mercuri), who was also one of the writers of Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards (1978). The characters of Viola and Rosa are so rich and deep that the viewer might suspect a woman’s touch; both Fulci and Fenech clearly benefited from Laura’s work on fleshing out Fenech’s dual roles. Rosa oozes sexuality but also hides a keen intellect and manipulative bent; Viola herself, though a formidable woman, is no frigid prude. She too uses her sexual wiles, in order to manipulate her hesitant lover Renato into visiting her sister Rosa to deliver an ultimatum. She does so knowing that Renato is likely to fall under Rosa’s spell and be unfaithful. When she learns of his infidelity, she is disappointed, but not surprised. Viola’s resilience is on display throughout the film as, completely unaided, she finds a way to both thwart her sister and bring the male antagonist to justice and errant lover Renato to his senses. Overall, her character sits in complete opposition to the typical patriarchal view of a woman in power.

There is, of course, something of each sister in the other. They are a Yin Yang, two parts of a whole, and can exhibit each other’s traits when the need arises. The complexity of the two roles (and of Fenech’s performances) means that there are times when we are not entirely certain whether we are watching Viola or Rosa. One sister impersonates the other as the plot requires it, hoodwinking the audience just as easily as the menfolk onscreen. Fenech is able to drift fluidly back and forth between characters and the resultant confusion greatly enhances both the drama and the comic effect of the film.

La Pretora was not the first time Fulci created a complex dual role for his lead actor. In 1968’s Perversion Story (Fulci’s first giallo), Marisa Mell plays the twin roles of Susan Dummurrier and her alter ego Monica Weston. While she is essentially the antagonist of the film, it is clear that Mell’s character is designed to garner the sympathy of the audience. She is a victim of her patriarch (Jean Sorel) who sets out to get the revenge she deserves. It is clear from both this and Fenech’s role(s) in La Pretora that Fulci has a predilection for cunning characterisation when it comes to female characters, and both Mell and Fenech realize the director’s ambitions perfectly.

Mary Woodhouse (City of the Living Dead, 1980)

A clear favourite of Fulci, Catriona McColl appears in all three of his ‘Gates of Hell’ triptych of disjointed narrative, apocalypse-heralding horror films. She plays the lead, Liza, in 1981’s The Beyond, and a strong supporting role as Lucy Boyle in House by the Cemetery, but it is in the first of the films, City of the Living Dead, that her presence is most strongly felt.

Mary Woodhouse is not just the lead character of this Lovecraftian chiller, she is presented as its saviour. Fulci (and his co-creator, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti) writes and directs Mary as an ersatz Jesus Christ. Blessed with spiritual powers, she has a vision of the titular city, the suicide of a Priest that brings about the end of days, and the horrors to come. This vision is so powerful, so terrifying, that it literally frightens her to death. Three days later, Mary is resurrected, coming back to life in her coffin in shallow earth, just as Christ returned to life in the cave that entombed him.

Mary is the film’s centre in more ways than one. In City of the Living Dead, Fulci once more employs ‘Centrality of Face’: holding in extreme close up for long takes of Mary’s pained face, Fulci invites the audience to explore it, to examine every blemish, wrinkle and crease as though we were exploring the film’s geography. Fulci had already used this technique before, with Florinda Bolkan in Don’t Torture a Duckling. Just as with Maciara, Mary’s face becomes a representation of all the themes of the film itself – of hopelessness, of decay and despair and an uncontainable evil that will not be stopped. Indeed, the vision of the priest’s suicide in the Dunwich graveyard is shown in the iris of Mary’s eye before Sergio Salvati’s camera pulls back to reveal her face, the connection between the film’s landscape and that of Mary’s visage instantly made.

In summation, given the evidence above, it is difficult to reconcile the director with the label of misogynist. It is clear that Fulci had a deep fascination with women, that more often than not they occupied the most thought-provoking characters in his filmography. Fulci loved women, they drove his greatest works. He created Beatrice Cenci, Maciara, Viola and Rosa Orlando and Mary Woodhouse (among others) with complexity and with emancipation, creating a number of staunchly feminist roles in what were (and still are) considered to be chauvinistic and even misogynistic genres.

References:

1 Bec, V (2018) Redefining Feminist Horror: Upholding a Progressive Standard. Grim [online] (2) pp29-33. Available at: https://anatomyofascream.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/grim-no2-mascara-machetes-digital.pdf [Accessed 18 September 2019]

2 Romagnoli, M (1992) L’occhio del testimone: Il cinema di Lucio Fulci. Bologna: Granata Press

3 DeGiglio-Bellemare, M (2018) Lucio Fulci’s Poetics of Attractions: The Cinema of Poetry and the “Southern Question” in Don’t Torture a Duckling. Monstrum 1(1).

About Matt Rogerson

The son of a VHS Pirate, Matt was exposed to video nasties at a tender young age and soon became a macabre movie fanatic. A student of Roman Catholic messages in genre film, he enjoys tracing the genesis of religious themes throughout the history of horror cinema. He has bylines at Dread Central and Horror Homeroom, and is a regular contributor at LongLiveTheVoid.com. He is also an occasional screenplay writer and PAGE Award finalist. Matt’s first book ‘Porte Dell’Inferno – Lucio Fulci, The Vatican, and the Uncontainable Evil’ is a semi-academic exploration of the religious themes in the Italian director’s work, and is coming soon. 

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