by Matt Levine
For better and worse, I cannibali (The Year of the Cannibals) is very much a product of its time: shot in Milan in 1969—the year in which a shockwave of street violence, labor strikes, and political terrorism drastically unsettled the rapidly-rebuilding city—this is a film impossible to separate from its historical and political context. With her third feature, Liliana Cavani (four years before she scandalized international audiences with The Night Porter) transports Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone” to a modern Big Brother-ish police state where corpses are left lying in the street in order to serve as an example to the cowed masses. Revolution foments when Antigone, the daughter of a bourgeois government official, and a mysterious foreigner named Tiresia begin stealing corpses and giving them proper burials, almost unwittingly sparking a great rebellion—and drawing the murderous ire of the totalitarian state. With jackhammer bluntness and a forced tone of profundity, I cannibali exudes all the political idealism and ferocious dedication that defined riots in cities like Paris and Milan in 1968-9. If it occasionally comes off as silly or naïve, that may ultimately have as much to do with our current jaded political climate and its withering faith in public activism as it does with the movie’s flower-power earnestness.
Director: Liliana Cavani
Producers: Bino Cicogna, Enzo Doria
Writers: Liliana Cavani, Italo Moscati, Fabrizio Onofri, based on the play “Antigone” by Sophocles
Cinematographer: Giulio Albonico
Editor: Nino Baragli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Pierre Clémenti, Britt Ekland, Tomas Milian, Francesco Leonetti, Delia Boccardo, Marino Masé, Alessandro Cane
Premiere: September 19, 1970 – New York Film Festival
US Home Viewing Release: January 14, 2014
US Distributor: RaroVideo U.S.
The opening sequence bears witness to the merciless massacre of a group of tow-headed children, all for daring to touch what seems to be a corpse lying at the seaside. The prostrate body is actually that of Tiresia (Pierre Clémenti), a bearded, wispy Christ figure whose sudden appearance in Milan and whose indecipherable language lend him a savior mystique; he even draws fish symbols on the wall wherever he goes. There’s a ridiculous moment in which, fleeing from the draconic military, Tiresia cuts through a church and takes the time to release a dove from a reliquary, sending it soaring above the churchgoers. Awkwardly updated from Sophocles' play (in which Tiresias is a blind prophet whose dialogues with the king Creon form the crux of Sophocles’ moral interrogation), Tiresia comes off in Cavani’s film like a clichéd child of the revolution, who perpetually seems to be in the midst of a dazed, drug-induced stupor. The vexing connection between political activism and Christian iconography is an interesting subtext (especially considering Cavani’s debut film, 1966’s Francesco d’Assisi, which portrayed the titular saint as a fiery protester who advocates for armed uprising), but the character of Tiresia is too dated and clichéd to be either emotionally or thematically compelling.
Tiresia stumbles into Antigone (Britt Ekland), the free-thinking daughter of a tyrannical bureaucrat, at a modish bar bathed in the impossibly bright hues of 1960s Technicolor. She has vowed to bury the corpse of her dissident brother, who has been murdered by the police. Tiresia joins forces in her zealous quest to confront the regime’s inhumanity because…well, because he’s supposed to: the two are meant to unite, almost mythically, as the forces of love and peace rise up against state-sanctioned brutality. The dichotomy between the two heroes’ tenderness and the violence of the state is bluntly conveyed in a bizarre bathhouse scene in which Tiresia and Antigone gently caress each other while a gang of naked older men crawl, Human Centipede-style, between the legs of a young boy fully dressed in military regalia. I’m all for emphatically surreal imagery, but this bathhouse scene perfectly expresses the crassness of Cavani’s themes: it’s a blunt depiction of callous depravity versus transcendental love, with no gray area in between. The characters in Cavani's film are either ludicrously saintly or ethically repugnant; they are not made of the moral balance and compromises which define human behavior.
As the film is an updating of Greek tragedy, it’s no surprise that Antigone and Tiresia’s rebellion leads them to a violent end. She is beaten by the police (who throttle her around the room in a spinning office chair) and pawed by a group of psychologists who hope to study her zealotry; he is featured on a tawdry TV news show, where the condescending anchors compare him to Mowgli from The Jungle Book. Even Antigone’s brother, Emone (Tomas Milian), unable to lobby for her release from prison, is confined to a cavernous cell after he joins Antigone’s corpse-robbing revolution. He is reduced to a sniveling animal, crawling on all fours and lapping up food, apparently in a deranged attempt to erase his own humanity and put him at the level of a beast. The state might be victorious, then, but the final scene reveals Antigone and Tiresia’s martyrdom, as throngs of protesters throughout Milan begin ushering corpses through the city in proud defiance of the sadistic oppressors who attempt to crush them.
This truncated view of political oppression and rebellion, in which starry-eyed resistance to a villainous state leads directly to mass uprising, is simplistic and didactic—but as mentioned before, it must be placed in its historic and political context. Made less than a year after riots, demonstrations, and labor strikes rocked Milan, I cannibali proceeds from the assumption that public agitation can lead to viable social change, and that the dehumanizing mechanisms of Western capitalism must be impeded by grassroots rebellion. This idealistic faith in popular revolt has been decidedly quashed over the last four decades—witness the relatively short-lived electricity of the Occupy movement—which partially explains the triteness of I cannibali’s political proclamations: taking to the streets sadly doesn’t have the same vivifying urgency it did in 1969. Even among its peers in film and literature, though, I cannibali pales in comparison: it doesn’t have the same dialectic complexity as Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) or the unflinching honesty of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), or even the gritty political allegories of Cavani’s contemporary, Pier Paolo Pasolini.
With its outdated political axioms and self-serious, demonstrative tone, I cannibali engenders as much irritation as it does introspection—but if it doesn’t succeed, it’s never less than a fascinating failure. At the very least, it's a lightning-in-a-bottle expression of late '60s civil unrest in Western Europe, a period whose political adamancy we could use more of. Cavani also intelligently emphasizes performativity in political revolt, positing rebellion as a form of performance art—for example, Antigone belting out an agit-prop song to an asylum of lunatics, or Emone willfully behaving like a debased animal. The role of performance in public agitation may be more powerfully conveyed in Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967), but Cavani deserves credit for completely eschewing a realistic style, instead imbuing grassroots activism with the larger-than-life aura of myth (borrowed, of course, from Sophocles’ original).
Cavani’s film also looks incredible: awash in blisteringly bright reds and deep, glittery blacks and grays, I cannibali utilizes Giulio Albonico’s cinematography to present a disorienting Milan, somehow pitched between sleek, modern industrialism and a bewitching timelessness. Though the camera’s zoom lens roams through the frame a bit more impulsively, the film’s look has something in common with the alienating, ghostly milieu of an Antonioni film (especially Red Desert). The haunting beauty of Albonico’s cinematography is flawlessly presented by Raro Video's crystal-clear Blu-ray release, while Ennio Morricone’s bizarre musical score—a product of late-‘60s psychedelic rock, completely different from his lavish soundtrack for, say, Once Upon a Time in the West—also gets the deluxe treatment it deserves. (Same for the befuddling, post-dubbed soundtrack.) Raro’s Blu-ray also features an interview with Liliana Cavani which, while offering a few insightful nuggets (such as the fact that Cavani likens her film more to Easy Rider than such Italian contemporaries as Dillinger is Dead), gets longwinded quickly; more fascinating, in fact, is the booklet that Raro includes, which cites several reviews from Italian publications steeped in the same political dogmatism that pervades I cannibali. In one 1975 reprint, for example, Ciriaco Tiso writes that Antigone and Tiresia “achieve a union that is a bond between two faces of the same sign, of love that invents and reproduces itself despite of and against the repression of the socio-political system”—a passage which encapsulates everything so remarkable and so tedious about I cannibali.