Thursday, April 9, 2015

SAN BABILA 8 p.m.: A SENSELESS CRIME - BLU-RAY REVIEW


Following his more lurid and sensationalist The TEENAGE PROSTITUTION RACKET (1975), director Carlo Lizzani took on yet another ‘torn-from-the-headlines’ story with this disturbing look at a small group of neo-fascists, who, in the rather turbulent sociopolitical climate of Italy during the ’70s, populated the busy piazza of San Babila in Milan.  In this small area in the heart of Milan, even the polizia turned a blind eye to their many troublesome and illegal activities.  The film’s title is actually derived from a murder that took place on May 25th, 1975, when a young student was violently stabbed to death by a group of neo-fascists; a crime which served as the prime motivator for Lizzani to embark on this project.

Unfolding in an almost documentary-style fashion, the film follows the exploits of four young men, including Fabrizio (Pietro Brambilla), Michele (Giuliano Cesareo), Alfredo (Pietro Giannuso), and Franco (Daniele Asti), the lattermost of whom is the youngest of the group and trying hard to ‘fit in’, but isn’t immediately trusted because he’s “never been to jail”.  Following the funeral of a respected fascist supporter, whom they disrespectfully refer to as part of a group of “half-dead mummies”, they end up in San Babila inciting violence against the ‘communists’ and trying to stay out of the “communist police clutches”.  However, the police merely stand idly by and are ordered to “stay where they are” whenever an incident breaks-out in San Babila – which run the gamut from vandalism to public beatings, and so on – but when Fabrizio and his cohorts are accused of smashing some scooters at a Left-leaning high school, an undercover cop from the squadra mobile doesn’t (or maybe just can’t) follow through, because, as it turns out, Fabrizio is an informant.

Later, they meet Lalla (Brigitte Skay), a rather ditzy street walker who has a predilection for wearing overly high platform shoes, which at one point results in her getting slapped around by Fabrizio on the steps of the Duomo, this after she refuses to remove said footwear, simply because he doesn’t like the fact that she is taller than him.  Earlier, in one of the film’s more controversial scenes, Franco is rather forcefully persuaded to make love to Lalla in the dingy, basement storeroom of an appliance store where his friend Alfredo works, and, even though Lalla is game at first, she is beaten and raped with a club when Franco can’t perform.  Immediately afterwards, she is threatened with death if she “tells the others”.

From left to right: Franco, Fabrizio, Alfredo & Michele, just a few of the "Sanbabilini".

Although the narrative primarily focuses on the aforementioned small group, their extreme Right Wing viewpoint extends to a much larger group of young men, who defend their San Babila turf like a ‘fortress’ or “Medieval castle”; such territorialism is demonstrated in a number of scenes when passersby are pelted with marbles from a slingshot, or, in one of the film’s most significant – if rather far-fetched – scenes, a large number of these men march in goose-step through the streets of San Babila, as curious onlookers observe with equal parts utter confusion and revulsion, while Ennio Morricone’s hard-hitting music ever increases in volume.  Incidentally, many of these scenes were actually shot covertly, producing some truly amazing reactions amongst the local populace, who assumed that what they were witnessing was actually real rather than merely staged.  This is further evidenced when our four leads purchase some dildos at a sex shop and then, in a brazenly vulgar moment, hang them from their pants crotches while standing in the street, causing numerous REAL citizens to react with stunned and angered expressions.

Some of the most alarming – and, quite frankly, disturbing – scenes in the film involve the youths’ possible recruitment by the Far Right into committing politically-motivated bombings and mass killings, the sorts of serious crimes which were plaguing Italy at the time.  At an illegal gun range somewhere on the outskirts of Milan, Alfredo is propositioned to “carry a briefcase” from Tuscany, and, although the fact is never specified, this mysterious briefcase would have undoubtedly contained some sort of explosive device.  Back in San Babila, Michele acquires some sticks of dynamite, with plans to detonate them at the headquarters of some left-wing union, which they eventually coerce Franco into doing.  Dressed in his customary pointy boots and mirrored sunglasses (this rebellious fashion statement seemed to be the norm at San Babila, and was almost regarded as their uniform), Lalla conveniently accompanies him on the Metro, but when she casually mentions something about San Babila, this immediately alerts the other passengers as to what he represents.  Panicked, he gets off the train, but, in one of the film’s best-realized scenes, once at the union headquarters, during a panic-stricken moment Franco neglects to light the bomb’s fuse.  He then gives his ‘comrades’ the excuse that the fuse had been wet, but when Fabrizio finds out otherwise from one of his many contacts, he and the others – in a nerve-wracking, drawn-out scene which is difficult to watch – force Franco to try and murder a communist, a killing which leads to the titular event.

Variety ad courtesy of Mike Ferguson and Steve Fenton.

With the exception of Pietro Brambilla (he had a small part in Pupi Avati’s The HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS [1976]) and Brigitte Skay (star of Bruno Corbucci’s sexy swashbuckler ISABELLA, DUCHESS OF THE DEVILS [1969]; released on U.S. video as MS. STILETTO), SAN BABILA ORE 20 UN DELITTO INUTILE was, like The TEENAGE PROSTITUTION RACKET, also populated with many non-professional actors, which allowed Lizzani to achieve the required “snapshot” of a disturbing and confusing time in Milan’s history; the fact that Lizzani filmed many scenes in the very same locations, which were still occupied by many right-wing extremists, is fascinating in and of itself.  Director of photography Pier Giorgio Basile also adds plenty of verisimilitude to the proceedings, with his ‘hidden’ and hand-held camerawork further accentuating the required realism which Lizzani strove to achieve.  As with most of the director’s work within the crime genre – beginning with his impressive and influential BANDITS IN MILAN ([1968] released theatrically in the U.S. by Paramount as The VIOLENT FOUR) – he was always inspired by true-life events or characters (CRAZY JOE [1974] comes readily to mind), which help imbue many of his films with a realism not typically seen in the pulpy, action-oriented poliziotteschi of his contemporaries, and which reveal far more truths about all the societal turmoil and tumult then currently affecting/infecting Italy.  And, even though some of the events were intentionally staged so as to appear authentic to the general public (i.e., the goose-stepping parade through San Babila), the film still manages to convey a very troubling time in Italy when rampant, “senseless” violence was an almost daily occurrence. 

Camera Obscura once again delivers another outstanding Blu-ray (Region B-locked) of this rarely-seen film, which includes a number of equally fascinating extras.  First up is commentary with Marcus Stiglegger and Kai Naumann (subtitled in English), who provide plenty of information and history about this one-of-a-kind film; as always, it’s a great, fact-filled listen.  Next up is a lengthy documentary (just over 65 minutes) with assistant director and actor Gilberto Squizzato, who also divulges many interesting facts about the film and the career of Carlo Lizzani.  A brief interview with the late director (1922-2013) is also included, wherein he discusses his move into directing and working with Italian movie mogul, producer Dino De Laurentiis.  An Italian-language trailer, photo gallery and a booklet featuring an essay with film historian Christian Kessler are also included.

It goes without saying that this is another highly recommended release from Camera Obscura, and an instant must-purchase.  For those who so desire, it is also available on DVD.  Order it from Diabolik DVD.

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