Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Mouth of the Wolf (La bocca del lupo)

Actor Vincenzo Motta

Director and cinematographer Pietro Marcello


THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF (La bocca del lupo)             A                                                      Italy  France  (68 mi)  2009  d:  Pietro Marcello

The past sneaked out the back.  All that remains are the traces of memories and shapes, which dissolve.                —Narrator (Franco Leo)

Made for €100,000, which is a little over $120,000, this is among the more visually extravagant films seen in years, an early prize-winning film at the Berlin and Turin Film Festivals, from the maker of 2020 Top Ten List #1 Martin Eden, which shares the same visually intoxicating DNA, filled with majestic 17th century mid-Baroque music by Dietrich Buxtehude (Membra Jesu Nostri, BuxWV 75 - II, Ad Genua from 1680, 6:08 to 14:00) and plenty of scintillating artistic flourishes, shot by the director himself, where the extraordinary visual palette is easily the most distinguishing feature of the film.  Somewhat experimental, throwing in archival documentary footage, this becomes a living work of art showing stunning originality, like The Picture of Dorian Gray that keeps unraveling over its short time period, just over one hour, yet it’s constantly changing, constantly shifting its emphasis, like the different voices we hear continually interchanging, peeling off the layers in a deep exploration into human subconsciousness, becoming, in effect, a highly theatrical memory play.  The rambling narrative also accentuates the town of Genoa, a port city situated on the sea in Northwest Italy, where its shipping industry drives the commerce, the busiest in all of Italy, yet overlooked when it comes to desirable destinations in Italy, so what we see takes place in industrial landscapes, in secret locations, on narrow streets and hidden alleyways, revealed as a dreamlike reverie, including sepia-tinted silent film footage, with an emphasis on hidden corners and a darkened shadowy existence, with Vincenzo Motta as Enzo wandering the streets as if stuck in a labyrinth searching for a way out.  Kept behind prison bars for 27 years, a love relationship is held together by written correspondence, which is read aloud, shared with viewers, a device that keeps them connected, even under extreme isolation, though we never see the object of his affections other than the silhouette of a shadowy figure, but we do hear her innermost thoughts, ranging from an initial skepticism about his intimidating brute masculinity to her adoring love and affection upon realizing the depths of his childlike vulnerability.  Enzo is a transplant from Sicily, a guy with a chiseled face who fell into the life of the camorra early on, carrying out dirty business operations, routinely requiring protection with guns until he wound up in prison.  The sense of detachment is overwhelming, along with continuing scenes of decay, connected to Garibaldi, who supposedly unified Italy, zeroing in on lonely figures who are viewed as castaways, like remnants washed up from the sea.  A literary and extremely poetic narration is provided by Franco Leo in a wearying voice that exudes working class, connected to the earth and soil, showing no pretense.  Archival footage of young boys jumping off the pier into the water represents a kind of elusive freedom that may only exist in memory, as these men know only hard times, mixing fragments of the present with the past, connected by archaic music that is utterly sublime. 

The Italian title comes from an 1892 novel by Remigio Zena, pseudonym of Gaspare Invrea, evoking his yearning to return to Genoa, extending beyond realist boundaries through stylistic and poetic prose that transforms a story of the vanquished and the marginalized.  Highly unorthodox and not easy to digest, yet extraordinary to behold, in an early scene we see Enzo appearing to return home from work, speaking to his beloved, but there is no sign of her, having retreated like a ghost into the realm of darkness.  She may make an early appearance, separately, without identification, alone, simply passing the time, mixed into footage of working girls having a spare moment for coffee, anonymously blending into the neighborhood, but it’s only much later in the film that we realize who she is.  Mysteriously shot footage using 8 and 9.5mm home movie and archival material continually blends into the landscape, altering the perception of reality, like night bleeding into day, mixing a constantly shifting, stream-of-conscience viewpoint into the present, where the familiar turns unfamiliar, continually assuming a different identity, as the narrator’s dry, emotionless voice reveals, “The places we pass through are an excavation of the memory, unknown desires, forbidden remembrances of a lost world.”  Cave dwellers live in hidden crevices underneath the city, immersed in the poorest regions, like a spectral presence, filling an unidentifiable need, leading invisible lives, like untouchables from another time, yet they exist, leading ordinary lives, mostly out of sight, like dimly fading recollections that are largely forgotten, blending seamlessly into the new normal.  Music intensifies these perceptions, adding richness and unforeseen depths, like reaching into the beyond.  Ocean waves, land excavation, or ships departing for the sea become symbols for time passing, yet one haunting image has a man carrying a mirror on his shoulder as he carefully walks through the decayed ruins of a demolition zone, where nothing is left but rock and debris, revealing the delicacy of existence, so fragile, yet easily reduced to a pile of rubble. Enzo pays his respects to an aging priest who once helped him, but his memory is too long gone, already lost to this world, so he just sits in a wheelchair and stares out the window.  Losing his own thoughts in a bar scene, the jukebox plays an enchanting popular song that reflects the golden era of the 50’s, cool and collected, cigarette in hand, a song of seduction, Serge Gainsbourg - L'eau à la bouche (1960) - YouTube (2:23), which grows even more sublime when the customers and bartender break out into their own spontaneous dance moves.  This meandering style seems to reflect all the wasted years of his life, seemingly thrown away, where he will never get it back, much of it over nothing, where the rest of his life is consumed with regrets and lost dreams that were never realized. 

An immensely powerful docudrama, challenging the divide between fact and fiction, questioning the notion of memory, while defiantly obliterating all preconceived notions of love among the ruins, as prisoners rarely come to mind when it comes to romance, yet the most revelatory connecting threads don’t appear until the last 20-minutes of the film, keeping viewers on edge, not really knowing where this is going, feeling at times aimlessly abstract and even incoherent, more like an impressionistic montage of the existential despair coming from a city’s underworld.  But it all comes into focus when Enzo and Mary (Mary Monaco) speak directly to the camera, explaining the origins of their love affair, meeting in prison, where she was a transsexual woman kept apart from the other prisoners, doing time for heroin addiction, meeting purely by chance, but she fell for him right away, love at first sight, becoming the only person she could trust.  The entire style changes here, as there are no effects, no music, no impressionistic montages, which pretty much defines what’s been seen so far, instead it’s simply two people sitting together talking about their lives, surrounded by a collection of eager dogs that are an extension of their dual personalities, becoming pure documentary with no embellishments, offering a direct window into their souls.  As she talks about him, he moves around uncomfortably in his chair, shifting this way and that, clearly reacting to every spoken word, occasionally gesturing for the dogs to sit back and be quiet.  He makes sure to emphasize that he protected her in prison, threatening guards and anyone else if they laid a finger on her, claiming he knocked out 30 people during recreation time until eventually nobody bothered either one of them, having their own private sanctuary in prison.  Since that moment, they’ve been together for twenty years, even after she was released and he spent another ten years behind bars, as their communication with each other has been constant.  Yet the home he returned to was no longer recognizable, existing only in his memory, which accounts for such dramatic stylistic innovation.  The respect they have maintained for each other is clear, however, attributing his devotion as the reason she was able to get straight from drugs, giving her a purpose in life, and while they still have no money to speak of, they have a shared dream of living a life of peace and quiet with their dogs, undisturbed, growing old together, as that’s all they’ve ever really wanted.  The impressionistic montage sequences return afterwards, while the orchestrated music by Dietrich Buxtehude is heard on a solo piano, adding tenderness and a softened intimacy to the melodic beauty, leading to a sequence of their realized dream, living together with their dogs on a steep hillside overlooking the city and the sea with a positively idyllic view, both inseparable and happy.  In this film, love is a force of nature, taking its place in the eternal beauty of human existence.  What follows is an utterly spectacular finale, which appears to be from fragments of found footage, bringing back the majestic opulence of the orchestrated music, where the cinematic aesthetic is nothing less than enthralling. 

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