Strange Brew… THE WITCHES Reviewed


BD. Region B. Arrow Academy. 12 (TBC).

“What’s inside a girl? Ain’t no hotter question in the so-called civilised world…” The Cramps.

Men are from The Temple of Mars, women from The Temple of Venus…

Portmanteau movies flourished in Italy during the ’60s and even Mario Bava got in on the act with I Tre Volti Della Paura (“The Three Faces Of Fear”) aka Black Sabbath in 1963. Regrettably, the Italian tendency to showcase the work of several different directors fianco a fianco yielded no Bava / Freda / Margheriti / whoever screen summit (what a tantalising “might have been”), these caroselli generally focussing instead on satirical social comment, trying to make sense of the changes wrought by Italy’s post-War “economic miracle”. In such a deeply conservative (indeed, recently fascistic) Catholic society, no such upheaval was more pertinent, in the minds of many, than that involving the social role of women…

In Le Streghe (“The Witches”, 1967) heavyweight producer Dino Di Laurentiis assembled five heavyweight directors to give their take on women. It goes without saying that those directors (Luchino Visconti, Mauro Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Rossi and Vittorio De Sica) were all men, nor can it go un-noted that the actress portraying the various facets of womanhood detected by all these make film makers was Dino’s trophy wife Silvana Mangano (below), whose claims as Italian screen Goddess in excelsis DDL was keen to promote over those of his former partner, now rival Carlo Ponti’s paramour Sophia Loren.


Why “The Witches”? Other interpretations are possible, available and perfectly plausible but my own take on the title is that it reflects a male a male acknowledgement of the power that women exert over men and the suppression that must, consequently, be applied to them. In Visconti’s opening chapter (the longest in the film), La Strega Bruciata Viva (“The Witch, Burned Alive”), Mangano is a beautiful screen icon (not much of a stretch there, then) deconstructed figuratively (somebody likens her, to her face, to a can of corned beef) and to some extent (via the removal of her wig, make up, etc) physically by her catty, vacuous entourage (which includes Clara Calamai, who subsequently dealt with being a washed-up actress in murderous style in Argento’s Deep Red). She rings her producer husband to tell him the glad tidings of her pregnancy, only to be coldly informed that her career commitments dictate an abortion. La Dolce Vita has turned seriously sour. In Bolognini’s Senso Civico (“Civic Sense”, aka Lady In A Hurry), Mangano volunteers to take RTA survivor Alberto Sordi to hospital but once he’s served his purpose of easing her passage through Roman traffic, he is unceremoniously dumped on a patch of waste ground. Beware duplicitous women bearing gifts, eh?

The third and easily most wacked-out section is Pasolini’s “broadly” comic La Terra Vista Dalla Luna (“The Earth Viewed From The Moon”) in which the director continues his teaming of Neaploitan comic legend Totò and Ninetto Davoli from the previous year’s Uccellacci E Uccellini (“Hawks And Sparrows”). Pasolini’s first (luridly) colour effort lampoons the way in which Italian men canonise their wives and mothers while simultaneously reducing them to death-like drudgery. Pasolini also finds time to decry the creeping, banal Americanisation (personified in Davoli’s startling, tangerine-quiffed Elvis wannabe) which he perceived as one of the main threats to authentic Italian culture. This instalment is scored by Ennio Morricone, while Piero Piccioni handles the others.


After that overly didactic dose of sprawling slapstick symbolism, Franco Rossi’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it La Siciliana (“The Sicilian Belle”) comes as a welcome exercise in economical film making. Mangano’s Nunzia is a piece of property but she can use this status to wreck havoc in the patriarchal world she inhabits.

In De Sica’s closer Una Sera Come Le Altre (“A Night Like Any Other”), Mangano is a bourgeois housewife, frustrated with her handsome but passionless American husband Charlie (a hopelessly miscast Clint Eastwood). She escapes into fantasies which pit him against a cavalcade of fumetti heroes competing for her attention (“Are you feeling lucky, Diabolik?”) and of course this briefly involves Eastwood decked out as a Spagwest gunslinger…


… all of which probably reinforces Pasolini’s point about cultural imperialism. As for “the role of women”… as Tim Lucas points out in his characteristically well-researched commentary track (*), The Witch, Burned Alive is just crying out to close this movie but Mangano, in an alleged vehicle for her talents, was required to play second fiddle to a male American box office draw. The power of witchcraft has its limits, apparently. Lucas further draws our attention to the parallels between Visconti’s contribution and the personal life of Mangano, whose desire to curtail her film career in favour of devoting more time to her children was repeatedly thwarted by Di Laurentiis. Her divorce from him was still unfinalised when she succumbed to complications from an operation for lung cancer in 1989. Her final screen role was as an uncredited restaurant diner in Juan Piquer Simón’s adaptation of the Shaun Hutson novel Slugs, the previous year.

My screener came minus the Ninetto Davoli interview and English language version of An Evening Like Any Other that will apparently grace street copies of this release, ditto the booklet boasting new writing on the film from Pasquale Iannone and the indefatigable Kat Ellinger.


(*) The venerable Mr Lucas seems to have taken to heart the common fallacy that Pasolini named his Christ biopic “The Gospel According To Saint Mathew” and identifies the snatch of music that  Davoli plays on his harmonica at one point as Oh Mein Papa… in fact it’s Verdi’s Va Pensiero chorus. Just saying, Tim…


Pasolini directs Totò…

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