Friday, March 28, 2014

DVD Dumpster Diving: The Sack of Rome, and The Snake God

When Franco Nero rails at God, you can almost imagine that God hears him. ("Is that Nero yelling again? What did I do now?") While watching The Sack of Rome (1993), an Italian production which features a good amount of Nero’s skyward beefing, I tried to imagine an American actor playing such a part. I couldn't think of many. Even a pair of scenery chewers like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster would seem too urbane. I’d give Japan’s Toshiro Mifune a shot at reaching God’s ear, but only if Akira Kurosawa was directing him. Daniel Day Lewis could get God’s attention, but he’s not American. The problem, of course, is that American actors haven't had many chances to shout at the heavens. In American movies you can yell at your boss, or your spouse, and you can shoot people in the head, but you don’t get many opportunities to yell at God. This is true now more than ever, for contemporary actors aren't asked to do much beyond work on their pecs and whiten their teeth. Can you imagine Channing Tatum or Shia LaBeouf railing at God? That's why Nero's performance in The Sack of Rome is so impressive. Compared to Nero, American actors seem twitchy and neurotic, as pampered as a bunch of models at a Victoria’s Secret shoot. Nero? I’m tempted to say it’s just the Italian language that makes him seem so explosive, but even when Nero's not talking, he's simmering. He’s an actor not given his due.

The film takes place in 1527 when mercenaries invaded Rome and began a horrific course of looting and destruction. Nero plays Gabriele da Poppi, an artist who feels above it all. Gabriele believes artists are immune during times of war. He lives like a 16th century rock star, buffered from the outside world by a kind of grand opulence. He saunters about his enormous estate looking as glittery and well-fed as one of Rembrandt's noblemen. He lives with Gesuina, his lover and model (the angelic Vittoria Belvedere, a young woman whose perspiration looks like it would go well over flapjacks) and her little punk of a brother. Gabriele calls this teen duo his "beasts." They bathe together and play games in what seems like an indoor Eden. Suddenly, Gabriele’s idyllic life is upended when the soldiers raid his mansion, destroy his artwork, and kill Gesuina’s brother. 

The head of the mercenaries holds Gabriele and Gesuina captive in their own home, demanding Gabriele paint a portrait of him. Gabriele, however, suffers a kind of psychotic meltdown after seeing his beloved city turned to rubble. All he can paint are bizarre images of salamanders and flowers. His sleep is troubled by nightmares. He wonders if debauched lives like his own contributed to Rome's fall. He also feels guilty over not getting Gesuina to safety when he had the chance. The worst of his fears, though, is that the sacking of Rome may mean the end of previous concepts of art and beauty.

The Sack of Rome is hard to follow at times. Still, there's an undeniable passion in the film, boiling under every scene. Director Fabio Bonzi is telling a story about the passing of an age, and he tells it with just a handful of characters. When Gabriele sees Gesuina in bed with their captor, he mourns the ending of an epoch, yet, he marvels that the hell they're in has actually made his muse more beautiful. These scenes are wrenching because Nero uses only his face and eyes to convey Gabriele's profound regret. Later, as their abductor lay eviscerated, Gabriele doesn’t celebrate. His life has changed too quickly and violently. The young girl he once playfully sniffed before her bath has become hardened. Even the soldiers outside are bracing for the future like the aging outlaws in The Wild Bunch, exchanging their swords in favor of primitive firearms. Murder will become abstract, less personal. "The golden age," Gabriele says, "is over."

Although The Sack of Rome boasts a couple of mildly erotic scenes, the new DVD from One7Movies is a change from a company that usually focuses on European erotica. For those wondering about such things, the only bonus feature is a gallery of stills, and the movie is presented in full screen rather than widescreen; it looks scratchy in places, and seems older than a film from ‘93. Still, it's a beautiful movie with impressive costumes and set decoration. (If you search for the film on the IMDB, use the Italian title, Zoloto.) I can’t vouch for the film’s historical accuracy, but it’s worth a look, particularly for Nero's performance. When he lets it rip, few can touch him.

“All of my films have a sexual theme. I'm a sex maniac, so why not?" So says director Piero Vivarelli, interviewed in the new Mondo Macabro DVD of his 1970 feature, The Snake God (Il Dio Serpente). You don't have to take his word for it. Just a glance at the movie tells you he was a kinky son of a gun.

Paola (the beautiful Nadia Cassini) is a young bride brought to the Caribbean by her wealthy, older husband. She enjoys the luxury, but she's a little bored. Hubby, you see, keeps taking off for business meetings, leaving Paola with nothing to do but laze around on the beach and perspire. She befriends a young black woman named Stella (Beryl Cunningham, Vivarelli's real life wife), a sexy school teacher who seems to have a carefree lifestyle. Paola is envious after seeing Stella cavorting on the beach with her hunky boyfriend, but Stella acts indifferent. "My boyfriend is fun," Stella says, "But he's stupid." Stella has more pressing interests involving local tribal customs, namely, those involving a mysterious snake god. Quicker than you can say I Walked With A Zombie, Stella introduces Paola to voodoo. At one point in the film Paola attends an island ritual and ends up thrashing on the ground with Stella as if they’re both possessed by evil spirits. Paola is a clean-cut European girl, so this scary island atmosphere is all new and exotic to her. By the film's end, Paola has given herself to Djamballa, the snake god. Isn't that always the way? 

Vivarelli was a genre bouncer, moving easily from rock & roll musicals, to comic book adventures. He earned his bones writing screenplays for directors like Lucio Fulci and Sergio Corbucci, and even after directing several of his own features, Vivarelli was often called upon to punch up someone else's screenplay. That's why you'll see his name on everything from spaghetti westerns to soft-core porn. He had an interest in songwriting, too, often contributing musical ideas to his films. Hence, Vivarelli's features were usually highlighted by vibrant scores, chockfull of brass and fuzz guitars. Even The Snake God, which is heavy on mind-numbing tribal beats, features a nice electric bass line that could've been lifted from an old Ventures album. 

Vivarelli, who died in 2010, was a rebellious soul who often chided the movie business for its hypocrisy. In the DVD's "about the film" section there's a lot of verbiage about how he was a communist, and a pot smoker, and how The Snake God was his statement about colonization. Gee, I thought the film's message was something about not leaving your younger wife alone, because there's usually a snake god out there waiting to show her a good time. To paraphrase something Vivarelli said during the interview, once you've been in the sheets with a snake god, you don't go back to mortal men. 

The Snake God isn't Vivarelli's best work. Many of the ritualistic scenes go on far too long in an effort to pad out a thin story, and despite all of Vivarelli's close-ups of bare asses and breasts, there's not much of an erotic charge here. The racial theme is also a bit heavy handed, with the black characters depicted as earthy and raw, while the white folks are shown as na├»ve and uptight (a theme familiar to anyone who has enjoyed the films of Whoopie Goldberg). Also, there was a period of time in cinema history when screen couples gazed into each other's eyes while eating citrus fruit, as if fruit juice dripping down someone's chin really jacked up the pheromones. If interracial fruit sucking is your bag, there's a fair amount of it here. 

The DVD is quite beautiful, though, courtesy of a new anamorphic transfer. The Caribbean looks breathtaking, and the sunlight bouncing off the ocean is nearly blinding. Kudos to Mondo Macabro for displaying Benito Frattari's cinematography in such sharp detail, for Frattari's camera work is the best part of a slow, dullish film. Do you like snake movies? Go find Cobra Woman with Maria Montez and Sabu. You'll be better off. 

(The Snake God is 95 minutes long, and presented in widescreen (2.35:1/16:9). The DVD includes a handful of special features, such as the interview with Vivarelli, extensive production notes, newly created English subtitles, a trailer, and previews of other Mondo Macabro titles.)

These two reviews originally appeared on the Cinema Retro website. For the very best site of its type, go to:

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