Chapter 19: Mother of Tears
"On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall."
- Stendhal, Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817)
By the fall of 1996, I was back in River City at a loose end and predictably lovelorn. Channel Four had passed politely on the project despite my disgruntled writer 'friend's best efforts to cut the shambling, unfocused treatment's hair and put it in a suit. Nonetheless, I went the extra mile as usual for il maestro and broke out the Sunday best when The Stendahl Syndrome premiered at the National Film Theatre on the south bank, a privilege never granted to his work before or since and indicative of a formal, albeit grudging acceptance of his 'ouvre' by the wider critical community.
After Dario's deal fell apart Stateside and Bridget Fonda parted company with the production, he had taken the project home, where The Stendahl Syndrome was funded by Berlusconi, the closest il maestro ever came to achieving something like state subsidy for his work, enabling him to shoot on location in Florence's Uffizi gallery and put together a dream team of all-Italian talent including cinematography by Guiseppe Rotunno and an original orchestral score by Ennio Morricone. Asia had stepped into Miss Fonda's shoes, continuing the abusive father-daughter director-actress relationship queasily embarked upon with Trauma, and now taken to a new extreme with the waif-like actress forced to endure extended scenes of rape, torture and degradation.
While her age worked against her credibility as the tough plainclothes cop she was supposed to be playing, Asia brought with her a vulnerability and an unnerving borderline anorexic appearance that mirrored her father's. It now became clear that Darios parting of the ways with former partner, Daria Nicolodi, and subsequent focus on their daughter had marked a sea change in the underlying sexual politics of his work. While his early films almost exclusively revolved around male artists battling castrating mothers and diseased sisterhoods, the emergence of Asia as the central figure in his latter work marked an accompanying shift to masculine psychos, repositioning the threat as a virile, inherently patriarchal force, against whose dominance the lead must struggle to win not only her freedom but define her shattered personality.
The film's premise was promising enough, its title derived from Stendahl's observation that exposure to great art can be hazardous to your health, unleashing destabilizing, repressed emotions or actively infecting the viewer with the diseased thoughts and emotions of the artist. Asia plays a unnervingly youthful detective investigating a series of murders inspired by the real life 'il Mostro' killings in Florence. After an initial encounter with the killer in the crowded Uffizi gallery, her character suffers a psychological breakdown and literally falls into one of the paintings, Brueghal's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the boundary between so-called 'real life' and the work of art collapsing irretrievably. Seeing that opening reel on a big screen with a packed, expectant audience was a breathtaking experience, that took me back to my very first night at the Scala but after that it was all downhill.
Asia's ability to enter and experience the paintings at first hand is never integrated in the plotline and vanishes right out of the flick approximately half-way through, roughly the same time as the lead psycho takes a dive, robbing the film of much of its dramatic tension. The second half becomes a gore-free retread of Tenebrae with Asia battling to engage our sympathies for an inherently unsympathetic character, required to serve as both victim and killer, while enduring a ceaseless barrage of flat lighting, trashy wigs and bad hair as if Dario were somehow trying to deliberately destroy her beauty, a suspicion further underscored by the scene in which the Thomas Kretschmann character cuts at her face with a razor blade.
The Morricone score is one of the great composers least inspired, with one increasingly annoying motif endlessly repeated between a jangling, swirling fuzz of discordant tones, that makes one long for the glory days of Goblin or, God help me, even Keith Emerson. The last nail in the textural coffin turns out to be Rotunno's unaccountably static camerawork, as if the master has left his equally famous and respected d.p. to just get on with it and foresworn his usual kinetic style in the process. Even the murders are off-beam with the decision to use the sort of handgun favored by 'il Mostro' instead of cutlery, further hampered by some of the worst CGI work known to man. The final result is undoubtedly one of Dario's most personal and bizarrely redemptive works, but the cumulative effect for the casual viewer is more like watching paint dry than suffering the giddy rush of being sucked into the painting itself.
Accordingly, the film sank like a stone at the box office and suffered the ignomy of being released direct to video in the United States by Troma, the only distribution company prepared to touch its broken body with a barge pole.
Dario was still riding high on his recent 'discovery' by the art house circuit and if the punters were somewhat reluctant to speak up at the accompanying Q and A, he failed to notice. He seemed more relaxed than I'd seen him before in public, effortlessly skating around some sticky questions from the arts maven chairing the discussion. He didn't bat an eye when she nailed him with the inevitable:
"Dario, why do you feel the need to kill so many women in your movies?"
"Why?" There was a momentary hush. Then il maestro smiled as if as a particularly pleasant memory: "Because women are so... so pretty, so beautiful! I like!"
I didn't know what to say so I didn't stick around. My career and love life were little more than a pleasant memory themselves at that point in time, and Stendahl had felt like less than a full meal, at least it hadn't filled me quite the way I'd wanted it to. I pushed through the crowd gathering around the bar, only to change my mind in mid-flow and decide to get the hell out instead. Which is when I saw her. I didn't even know she was there and she had made no effort to show for the Q and A, but she must have been looking in my direction and as I turned our gaze met.
She was the face on the screen, the woman in the picture. She was il maestro's daughter and for a moment that look of fear in her eyes seemed genuine.
"Ri - chard...?"
I can't remember if I said anything. All I know is the crowd seemed to melt and just for once there was nothing to keep us away from each other.
"You've gotta help me... you've gotta get me out of this place..."
I saw Alan Jones' amused face amongst the onlookers and I recalled that long ago moment, when I had first glimpsed Asia's eyes as the Teutonic knight knocked her mask to one side with his spear in La Chiesa, and how the nosy old bugger had simultaneously caught my outstretched hand by the wrist and told me to put out my smoke. But it was Asia's hand that held mine now and there was no objective difference any more between 'real life' and the movies except for one little detail. Living it out first hand was a big improvement over just being an observer...
"Anything you say, sister..."
My fingers pressed flat against the cold glass of an oddly convenient fire exit.
"I don't care where we go. Let's just go, okay?"
The door gave and the dream enfolded me, as if instead of stepping onto the darkened embankment I had passed passed through the mirror into another world where it was all true, where all things were possible. I remember a full moon, fuller than I'd seen it before and a white curtain fluttering and belling like the wings of an angel in the wind. It was somewhere just south of Hallow'een 1996 and for just a while, I was actually happy in a Richard kind of way, safe and secure in the arms of the mother of tears...