And now for something completely different.
Following the conclusion of his “Animal Trilogy,” Dario Argento declared that his time as a giallo director had come to an end. From a modern perspective, this seems as preposterous as Alfred Hitchcock declaring he would begin focusing solely on period romantic comedies in the wake of the success of Psycho, John Malkovich leaving the world of acting to become a puppeteer, or schlockmeister Eli Roth making a family movie about, like, child spies or something. Historically, however, this kind of move is not without precedent; David Cronenberg, for instance, ditched a lifetime career of making body horror flicks to focus on prestige pictures (with mixed success), and many actors have made the leap from on-camera to behind-the-camera work. This change didn’t work out so well for Argento, however, who went back to his wheelhouse for his fifth picture.
Argento’s three previous pictures were domestic successes with great international interest; his fourth film, the first non-giallo, was his first commercial failure. For his fourth film, he chose to make a period piece comedy set during the first Italian War for Independence, with obvious influences from spaghetti westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, which Argento had worked on before embarking on his own directorial career. I mentioned in my review of Four Flies on Grey Velvet that in his earlier efforts, like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento shot duplicate footage of newspapers and notes with the text in English to prepare for international release. Le cinque giornate (The Five Days), on the other hand, was created without any apparent interest in release outside of Italy, as it focuses on a relatively unknown (outside of Argento’s home country) minor historical event: a five day seige during the late 1840s in which the citizenry of Milan drove Austrian soldiers out of the city. As a concept, there’s a lot of potential there. In execution, however… not so much.
The film follows Cainazzo (Adriano Celentano, who is best well known in Italy as a musical performer), an incarcerated petty thief who is freed when revolutionaries blow a hole in the wall of the prison. He escapes and begins searching for his former partner, Zampino (Glauco Onorato), to collect on his half of the score that landed him in jail. He discovers other former compatriots taking advantage of the democratic revolution to plunder the homes of rich and poor alike; they tell him that Zampino has become an important figure in the revolt and is now known by the name “Liberty.” He is identified as a criminal in the street, and he attempts to take refuge in a bakery, but it is destroyed by the inept baker Romolo (Enzo Cerusico), a naive Roman city “boy” (Cerusico was 37 at the time) who mishandles the oven. Together, the two make their way across the city and through a series of interactions and adventures, encountering scenarios both humorous and depressing.
I have long theorized that international comedies are less successful than intercultural dramatic films or literature because drama is much more universal than comedy, which is more culturally determined. Drama is wrung from things that we all share or with which we can empathize, even if the cultural specifics are different. A Korean film about struggling for parental approval, a German film about grappling with the death of a spouse, a Brazilian film about growing up and losing one’s innocence–all of these have themes that transcend national and cultural boundaries, even if the idiosyncrasies and specifics are unfamiliar. But an anime about bakers that features puns that work in the original Japanese but not in translation, or an Australian feature that requires historical knowledge about class differences in Sydney? Not as accessible for someone outside of that culture and its accompanying situated knowledge. For that reason, I’m willing to cut Days some slack, even though it was a mostly forgettable film. It’s crime isn’t being bad, per se; it’s being boring.
The comedy featured here is a little broad for my taste. The first scene in the film features Cainazzo striking a rat which has gotten too close and flinging it away, where it lands in the mouth of another prisoner, who is asleep. Later, Cainazzo and Romolo assist a woman (Luisa De Santis) in giving birth, and the vignette kicks into high gear as the duo’s actions are shot in fast motion and accompanied by accelerated ragtime music. Later still, the duo is enlisted in the creation of a barricade under the guidance of the disconnected and airheaded Contessa (Marilu Tolo), and Romolo accidentally seduces the widow of a hanged traitor (Carla Tato), as she is aroused by his recitation of different types of bread.
And then Romolo is murdered by a firing squad, for accidentally killing an aristocrat while saving a young woman from being raped.
The film is a series of vignettes that are ostensibly comedic (Romolo is forever mispronouncing Cainazzo’s name–hahaha), but are at other times remarkably insightful or emotionally devastating. While squatting in what they assume to be an abandoned mansion for an evening, Cainazzo and Romolo are greeted by grotesque parodies of aristocratic indulgence who nonetheless are right in their declaration that the so-called “People’s Revolution” will do nothing to uplift the downtrodden or poor. A scene ends with a young child shrieking in anguish over the body of his mother, a collateral victim of Austrian violence. What I would normally describe as tonal inconsistency actually seems to be a deliberate attempt to induce emotional whiplash to illustrate extreme nihilism. Nowhere is this more clear than when Cainazzo, after nearly five days of near-misses, is finally reunited with Zampino, only to learn that the people’s hero, the icon of liberty, is actually working with the hated Austrians and is both a traitor and a war profiteer. At the end of the film, Cainazzo delivers his final line, “You’ve all been tricked!” to a waiting crowd of energetic Milanians, flush with patriotic fervor, and he’s right: the Austrians may have retreated, but the revolution is a lie.
In the abstract, this all sounds like an enjoyable, even thought-provoking film. In practice, however, it’s a bore. Objectively, the film falls just short of two hours, but the pacing is so poor and the cinematography so blasé that, subjectively, you feel that you’ve actually been staring at the screen for an interminable five days. Outside of sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I don’t think I’ve ever checked my watch so frequently in my life. Argento’s penchant for dynamic camera work is completely missing in this laborious picaresque; the film feels like a cheap and straightforward product for consumption, like something that was assembled and packaged on the made-for-television production line. There are elements that work, but overall, this is a film that is formless and unappealing, and you can’t chalk that up entirely to cultural dissonance; even Italian audiences and critics savaged the film, and Argento went straight back to work on giallo films afterwards, beginning production of what many consider to be his masterpiece, Profondo rosso. Only one DVD pressing of the film was ever released, in Europe, so tracking down this movie isn’t easy (I was lucky enough to find a VHS copy at Austin’s premiere rental outlet, Vulcan Video). I say: don’t bother.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond