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LGM Film Club, Part 148: The Skin

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I recently watched Liliana Cavani’s 1981 film The Skin. Adapted from Curzio Malaparte’s memoir about Italy during World War II, it’s a fascinating if not totally successful film. Cavani was notorious at the time she made this becuase she had directed The Night Porter, which was seen as horrifying upon release but now is usually considered a minor classic. This is also challenging in some ways. Burt Lancaster plays a bitchy, vain Mark Clark who is more concerned with the annoying aviator wife of a senator coming to visit than he is about wining the war. Marcello Mastroianni is Malaparte, your guide for the film. Evidently he didn’t really have any female characters in the book so Cavani added some. Claudia Cardinale is Malaparte’s sorta wife but it’s clear they have sexual freedom outside of marriage; alas, she isn’t given much to do. More interesting is Alexandra King’s role as the aviator wife of the senator. It was her only role and she plays it pretty well.

Again it’s shaky here and there. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius during the Italian campaign (which really happened) is used as a device for all sorts of things to close out the film, which isn’t all that successful. But what’s fascinating is the bitterness by which the Italians saw the Americans. Even if they were glad to be rid of the Germans–which really depended on which Italian you were talking to–the Americans in the film constantly refer to them as “wops” and other derogatory terms, have absolutely no respect for any of them, and treat them as nothing more than sexual conquests. A big part of the film–too big really–is Mastroianni and King one-upping each other touring around Naples. What this does is enter the film into some pretty disturbing scenes, including mothers prostituting out their young boys to Moroccan soldiers, a gay orgy, and other fun times. I will say this for the film–it’s a useful counternarrative to American films about the late war. It was hell for the Italians, when sex was about the only thing they had to sell.

Another interesting point is since the film was never shown in the U.S., Lancaster is dubbed into Italian. It is weird at first to hear such a familiar actor with a different voice. Of course, European film of the time was often multinational with everything dubbed into whatever language. It’s strange though to put an actor you know well into that situation when every film I’ve seen with Mastroianni (I think) is him speaking Italian. So I’m used to thinking about his acting when reading subtitles, but not Lancaster. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly different.

Also, if you want to see what it looks like for someone to get run over by a tank, well, this is the film for you. Not much of the film in available on YouTube but that scene is. I’m going to allow you to find that one yourself if you want. Here’s the trailer. You can watch the film on Criterion.

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