Monday, January 12, 2015

La via dei babbuini (1974)


Italian Four-Panel Poster

La via dei babbuini is an Italian comedy-drama, written and directed by Luigi Magni and starring Catherine Spaak, Pippo Franco, and Lionel Stander.  The only print that I have ever seen, the Italian DVD release, has no English-friendly viewing options, so I am dependent on the following Italian sources for a plot summary.

Here is a summary from an Italian blog (translated using googletranslate and cleaned up by me):

"This is certainly an atypical film in the career of Luigi Magni, who here writes and directs a story of psychological introspection that is very delicate and very well played by an amazing and ethereal Catherine SpaakThe African setting is very charming and fascinating, but it wastes the romantic sequences of sunsets and panoramic views of the lush green forests and vast savannahs with long scenes cut almost like a documentary concerning animals.  The music by Armando Trovajoli is excellent.  Pippo Franco role is atypical for him.  Despite some annoying and useless jokes in a Roman dialect, he paints a very interesting character. Instead, the silliest character proves to be Fabio Garriba as the unpleasant and almost caricature-like husband of Spaak (and she is better than the script): it's no wonder to the viewer that the poor woman decides to leave him.

Fiorenza (Catherine Spaak), is a young middle-class woman who is bored with her marriage to the childish neurotic Orazio (Fabio Garriba), so she decides to go to Africa to assist her old, dying father (Lionel Stander) whom she has never known after he abandoned her as an infant, in order to continue his work of colonialism in Africa.  The meeting between the two is touching and the man seems to find the flashes of vitality that seemed to have been lost, but it is too little: his fate is sealed.  After burying her father, Fiorenza first thinks of returning to Rome, but she becomes more and more fascinated by the environment of Africa and decides to stay and find hospitality in the hut of Getulio (Pippo Franco), an Italian who lives there for a long time, passing his days philosophizing about the mysteries of life and trying to hunt down a huge crocodile that he calls Gualtiero.  He is constantly risking trouble with the game wardenMeanwhile Orazio also comes from Italy with the hope of bringing back Fiorenza, but she is attracted to Getulio and refuses.  Unfortunately, that attraction will not be realized, because the poor guy will meet a tragic end (eaten by the crocodile in one of his umpteenth ambushes). Fiorenza will continue her tormented inner journey, following the path of the baboons, at the going down of each evening, back from the forest on the plants of the savannah to regain their purest essence.

The film is perfect as a showcase for an Africa full of postcard images. 'The way of the baboons' is undoubtedly a film unfairly overlooked and misunderstood, well directed by a director who until then had not shown his ability in this kind of genre, story and situationI think it's very hard not to be charmed by the film's beautiful images, from the melancholy that permeates the whole story, and the ending that I found extremely poignant and poetic. Recommended."

Here is a machine-translated summary from Italian wikipedia:

"Fiorenza, a young middle-class woman, lives in Rome with her husband Horace. The marriage of the two is already quite saturated, even if not outwardly smashed: this situation depends as much on the deliberate lack of children, how much psychological and social elements that both spouses perceive, unconsciously and otherwiseFiorenza, rushes to Massawa to assist her father, an old colonialist who she has not known.  She sees him die and buries him.  Left alone, she returns home but is guided by the extravagant Getulio to discover the mystery of Africa.  Horace, an educated man but one that suffers from chronic childishness, reaches his wife and tries to tear her away from Africa.  Fiorenza, however, after the tragic death of Getulio, starts following the way to the savannah baboons that, unlike men, go back to the plants where lies the secret of their real nature."

La via dei babbuini (known in English-speaking countries as Highway of the Apes and Trail of the Baboons) was shot on location in Ethiopia, near Addis Ababa, beginning in mid-January 1974.  Apparently, the project was beset with problems.  Production had to be suspended at one point because of a revolt in the Ethiopian army.  In addition, the role of Fiorenza was originally shot (at least in part) with Manuela Kustermann (a theatrical actress for whom this was to be her debut film role), but the producers concluded that the film required a more traditional actress, so it was re-shot with Catherine playing the part.  Filming was completed by May of 1974.
  • The February 13, 1974 Variety reported:  "film director Luigi Magni shooting 'Highway of the Apes' for Titanus."
  • The February 20 1974 Variety listed the film as in production with a mid-January start, Luigi Magni directing, and Pippo Franco, Manuela Kustermann, and Fabio Garriba starring.
  • The March 13, 1974 Variety reported:  "Film director Luigi Magni and his 'Highway of the Apes' unit had to suspend production for a few days when the army revolted in Ethiopia.  Otherwise, there were no casualties and work has resumed near Addis Ababa."
  • The May 8, 1974 Variety reported:   "Coming out of production is 'Trail of the Baboons' by Luigi Magni that was shot in Ethiopia twice.  Actress in first version was replaced by Catherine Spaak."
First, the positives:  The DVD print is good (even though there are some artifacts here and there from the film source), the musical score by Armando Trovajoli is good, the cinematography is excellent, and Catherine and Pippo Franco appear to give good performances.  Catherine is lovely, continuing the recent trend of a long, reddish hairstyle.  In fact, there are some close-up shots of Catherine in which she is as pretty as she has ever been on film.  Despite those positives, however, they seem to be outweighed by the negative, starting with the story.  It all just seems rather melancholy and uninteresting, for the most part, and all of the African nature shots in the world can't overcome that.  It's hard for me to see how the general movie-going public in Italy would have identified with this story, yet it also does not seem to rise to the level of some sort of critically-adored art film.

On any list of most misleading advertising campaigns for a film, this one has to make the cut.  For the most part, looking at the Italian posters, you would expect to see Catherine cavorting in the nude in some sort of Garden of Eden, which is absolutely not the case, not even close to being nude or in a Garden of Eden.  The locandina poster below, the one on which Catherine is scene lying in a white robe, is the best representation of the actual content of the film, but it was probably the least appealing to the Italian film-going public of the time.  So, now we are getting to the heart of one of the film's big problems.  It doesn't really know what it wants to be.  It seems to start out as a drama, or at least that's how it feels to me, and shows lots of on-location African scenery seemingly intended to create a sense of wonder and getting back to nature.  By the latter half of the movie, however, it seems to have drifted more into the comic realm.   If I ever have the opportunity to view the film with English subtitles, then perhaps my appreciation of it will grow.  It does not appear to be a bad film, but it does not appear to be a particularly good one either.

The film does not seem to fit into any particular genre of the time, and I would expect that it was a hard sell at the box office.  I can see why the producers saw fit to re-shoot the film with Catherine in the lead in order to try to salvage their investment.  With a relatively unknown actress in the lead, I can't imagine how the producers could have ever hoped to get the film distributed widely enough to make money.  With that said, even bringing Catherine aboard does not appear to have helped.  I do not know how the film performed at the Italian box office, but I have found no indication that it was ever released outside of Italy.  I have never even seen any specific dates for its Italian release, which was presumably in the latter half of 1974.  It seems that this film was very hard to find prior to the 2011 DVD release in Italy.  Prior to that release, I did not have much hope that I would ever be able to see it.

In reading interviews with Catherine from the last 10 years, I get the sense that she is a very introspective person, one who has a sort of new-age spirituality in which she values inner peace and harmony with nature.  Perhaps that would have attracted her to this project back in 1974, or perhaps this project may have spurred those kinds of thoughts in her real life.  That would be an interesting topic to broach in an interview with her.

As I think that we will see over the coming posts, a case can be made that La via dei babbuini may have been the first signal that Catherine's nice run as a leading lady on the big screen was nearing its end.

Here is the cover of the Italian DVD release:


An on-set photo in Ethiopia:


Italian posters:





Soundtrack 45 rpm record:


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Catherine Spaak: The Year in Review - 1973


1973 Italian Magazine Cover

The year began with Catherine committed to filming La schiava io ce l'ho e tu no.  Filming was expected to commence in Rome and Brazil by mid-April of 1973, but production did not start until May 21, 1973 and was completed by mid-summer.
  • The October 4, 1972 Variety reported that producer-director Gianni Grimaldi has lined up Lando Buzzanca, Catherine Spaak and Philippe Leroy for "Pleasure Boy"- a look at night-life hedonism in Rome."
  • The March 7, 1973 Variety reported that:  Medusa Cinematografica will produce 'The Slave' in Italy and Brazil starting mid-April with Giorgio Capitani helming and Lando Buzzanca topbilled.
  • The May 9, 1973 Variety reported that "Slave Woman" with Catherine Spaak was "now filming."
  • The June 27, 1973 Variety reported:  Seven Stars MEDUSA THE SLAVE (La schiava) (May 21 start Rome and Brazil) ... Director: Giorgio Capitani Cast: Lando Buzzanca, Catherine Spaak, Veronica Merin.
Other than perhaps working on promotional duties for Cari genitori, which premiered in Italy on February 9, 1973, it is not clear how Catherine spent her time during the first few months of 1973.  She may have worked on some recordings with husband Dorelli.  Catherine and Johnny had two 45 rpm records released during 1973 on the CGD label.  Una serata insieme a te/Non so piu come amarlo was released by June, because the June 20, 1973 edition of Variety listed it at #10 on the charts in Rome as of June 19.  


Also, Cosi un uomo e una donna/Proviamo a innamorarci was released at some point during the year.


One of the Spaak/Dorelli songs (I don't know which one, yet), was included on a compilation album in 1973.  Here is an image of the 8 track tape of that album:


Catherine was featured in an article in the April 21, 1973 edition of Hola magazine:

 
In August, Catherine began work on Storia di una monaca di clausura, which was shot in Rome.
  • The August 9, 1973 Variety reported:  "Suzy Kendall replaces Joan Collins in the Splendor-PAC production 'Diary Of A Cloistered Nun'."
  • The August 22, 1973 Variety reported:   "Femme principals in 'Story of a Cloistered Nun' are Catherine Spaak, Suzy Kendall and young newcomer Eleonora Giorgi."
I am not aware of what Catherine was doing over the last quarter of 1973.  Perhaps she spent some time with publicity duties surrounding the release of the two films on which she worked in 1973.  La schiava io ce l'ho e tu no premiered in Italy on October 7, 1973.  Storia di una monaca di clausura premiered in Italy on November 9, 1973.

Here is a 1973 calendar card featuring Catherine:


Here is a magazine clipping from 1973 that shows Catherine with Sabrina and another child (I cannot read the article in the image, and that boy appears to be older than 2, Gabriele's age in 1973).


Here is a clipping from a 1973 edition of Oggi magazine:



Here is a clipping from a 1973 Spanish magazine:


Here are additional magazines featuring Catherine from 1973:


Monday, January 5, 2015

Storia di una monaca di clausura (1973)


Italian Two-Panel Poster

Storia di una monaca di clausura (aka Story of a Cloistered Nun), directed by Domenico Paolella, is an Italo/French/West German co-production that tells the story of Carmela (Eleonora Giorgi), a 17-century young woman that shames her family by refusing to marry the man to whom she was promised by her parents as an infant, because she has fallen in love with a young man named Giulio (Antonio Falsi).  The film opens with the two infants in something resembling a marriage ceremony, in which the parents promise that the infants will marry when they come of age.  Carmela's father is so shamed that he tells Carmela's mother that Carmela's choices are death or becoming a nun, so Carmela's mother takes her to a convent and forces her to join.  

Immediately, we begin to learn of the harsh conditions and intrigue that occur behind the convent walls.  Sister Elisabeth (Catherine Spaak) is a young, rebellious nun that sneaks around to do whatever she wants against the convent rules and the orders of the Mother Superior (Suzy Kendall).  It becomes clear that, in addition to frolicking in secret parties with some of the other young nuns late at night, Sister Elisabeth, also carries on lesbian relationships with them.  In addition, with the help of other sisters, she often sneaks out at night for sexual encounters with Diego (Umberto Orsini), a handsome hedonist/whore-monger.

Sister Elisabeth and the Mother Superior become rivals for the affection of the young, beautiful Carmela.  The Mother Superior expresses her loneliness to Carmela, begging for her physical affection, but is spurned by Carmela.  Sister Elisabeth, meanwhile, conspires to help Carmela sneak out to meet Giulio, and in turn use that situation to pressure her into a physical relationship.  She too, however is spurned by Carmela, who only wants to be with Giulio.  Ultimately, through the treachery of Sister Elisabeth, Giulio ends up dead, and Carmela is beyond distraught.  To make matters worse, Carmela has become pregnant with Giulio's child.  The Mother Superior and the other nuns try to keep the situation under wraps, but the Archbishop finds out and demands to know who is the mother of the infant.  When all of the nuns come forward and claim to be the mother, the Archbishop is so enraged that the monastery is to be closed (and we are led to believe that the nuns will be killed).  The nuns work to help Carmela escape with her child, and we are told that she spent her life helping the unfortunate.

In working on this post, I watched this film for the first time.  I had postponed watching this one for years, because it just did not sound like a film that would interest me, if not for Catherine.  The version that I viewed was the now out-of-print U.S. DVD release by NoShame Films, in Italian with English subtitles and running time of just under 97 minutes.  I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by my first viewing.  I would not list it as one of my favorite Catherine films, but it held my interest and is not bad.  I am not an expert on nunsploitation films, because this is the only one that I have ever watched, but I suspect that it is relatively tame for the genre.  It has the lesbian theme (though there are no overt lesbian love scenes), a bit of nudity (mostly from Giorgi), and harsh to the point of being brutal rules and living conditions for the nuns.  However, there is a modicum of taste used in portraying these exploitive themes, and a certain level of class is brought to the proceedings by Catherine and by Suzy Kendall.

Suzy Kendall, a British actress, was a relative rarity in her day, in that she would not do on-screen nudity.  Likewise, though Catherine did a small amount of nudity in her career, she was more conservative in that regard than most of her peers in Italian cinema.  It would be interesting to hear from Catherine as to why she took this potentially scandalous role, yet she was not willing to do on-screen nudity for it (even though there are scenes where it would have been expected, especially in a movie like this one).  

In the extras on the NoShame DVD is a 2006 interview with Orsini and Giorgi.  Orsini talks about how excited he was to work with Catherine, because she was viewed as such an iconic star.  He was especially looking forward to their love scenes.  In the first, the camera is behind Catherine while her top is removed as she faces Diego.  Orsini says that he was anxiously looking forward to her exposure only for his eyes, but the surprise on his face in the film is because, when her top came off, he found that she had tape over her nipples.  Catherine was apparently following the veteran actress trick of placing tape over her nipples to ensure that the director would not end up with any topless footage that might be used without her approval.  Interestingly, there is also an odd homoerotic scene in the film involving Diego and another man wearing only towels and getting massaged by a black man.  In the interview, Orsini expressed his discomfort with that scene, especially because he said that the other man was one of the few fashion designers that was publicly out of the closet at the time.  He seems to regret that he went along with it.

In the interview, Giorgi talks at length about how she came to be cast for this role (her first credited role), even though she was only a part-time model trying to work her way through school at the time.  She talked about how elegant Catherine was and how she helped her a lot, in particular helping her learn how to show fear on camera.  Giorgi noted that Catherine, though only in her late-20's at the time, had already had such a distinguished career.  She was also complimentary of Suzy Kendall and the rest of the cast, noting how much they all helped her work through her inexperience.  She talked about being nervous about doing the nude scenes, but ultimately just treating it like it was no big deal.  She laughingly talked about the first nude scene that they filmed, one in which she is being punished by being beaten with a whip while topless.  She noted that the only female crew member was a wardrobe person who kept putting a towel over her breasts in between takes.  Giorgi finally just told her to stay back, and when she did, the towel stayed perched on her rather large, and very perky breasts.  That became a running joke with the crew about how the towel stayed up.

Though I have seen a few of Giorgi's later films, she never really made much of an impression on me.  Not that she was bad, I just never thought that she distinguished herself from the many other attractive and reasonably talented actresses in that era of Italian cinema.  After watching this film, however, I can see why she got the opportunity to continue working and improving her acting skills.  Much like Catherine in I dolci inganni, Giorgi's inexperience gave her a certain vulnerable, naive persona that worked well for the role.  I thought that she did a good job.

As for Catherine's performance, I think that it was solid, overall.  She looked beautiful with long, strawberry-blonde/reddish hair (to the extent that she got to show it in a couple of scenes).  I think that the scene in which she expresses her longing desire to Carmela is one of the better dramatic scenes of Catherine's career to that point.  On the other hand, there are a couple of scenes that do not work as well, because of Catherine's pretty smile.  For example, when Sister Elisabeth is having her encounter with Diego, he wants her to tell him about the lesbian encounters behind the convent walls.  She smiles what should be an evil or devious smile as she talks to him, but the smile seems out of place.  It is Catherine's natural smile/grin, which just does not seem appropriate for the situation.

All-in-all, Story of a Cloistered Nun is definitely a film that all Catherine fans should check out.  Although the themes are quite exploitive, they are handled in a relatively tame manner, Catherine's performance is good, the film is well-made with a good musical score, and the film is reasonably interesting.  Although not a sequel, the film is a follow-up to the very successful Le monache di Sant'Arcangelo from 1972 starring Anne Heywood and Ornella Muti.  I liked Cloistered Nun well enough that I will make a point to watch the previous film.

Here are a few other random thoughts from my viewing of the NoShame DVD:
  • In one scene, Sister Elisabeth is punished by being forced to slide across a concrete floor on her stomach while licking the floor.  If you look closely, you can see that a narrow, clear covering has been placed on the floor and that Catherine is sliding her tongue across that covering (not across the actual floor, thank goodness).
  • The NoShame DVD purports to be an uncut version of the film and includes Italian and English trailers.  The trailers present two scenes that are different than what is seen in the "uncut" feature presentation.  First, in the scene in which Sister Elisabeth first sneaks out to meet Diego, the trailer shows a more pulled-back shot of Catherine's back as her top is removed.  In the movie, the camera is much closer, showing little of her back.  Second, in the movie's scene in which Carmella hears screaming in the night and rushes to Sister Elisabeth's door, Sister Elisabeth opens the door to reveal that one of the young nuns is in her bed and quickly pulls a sheet up to cover the front of her body.  In the trailers, the nun in the bed does not quickly pull a sheet up to block any view of her body, but is instead laying on her back topless.
  • I briefly watched a bit of the film in the English dubbed version.  It appears that the actors mouthed their lines in English for later dubbing.  That seems to be typical for many Italian films of the era.  It sounds to me like Catherine did her own dubbing for the Italian version, but I do not think that she did her own dubbing for the English version.  It is often hard for me to tell, but it does not sound like her to me, although the voice sounds close to hers.  It is not ridiculously different.                                                                                                                   
Here is the Italian trailer (though the youtube poster has edited the trailer by placing a white box over any nudity):
 The film was shot at the Palatino Studios in the old part of Rome in the late summer of 1973 and was originally scheduled to have Joan Collins in the Mother Superior role.
  • The August 9, 1973 Variety reported:  "Suzy Kendall replaces Joan Collins in the Splendor-PAC production 'Diary Of A Cloistered Nun'."
  • The August 22, 1973 Variety reported:   "Femme principals in 'Story of a Cloistered Nun' are Catherine Spaak, Suzy Kendall and young newcomer Eleonora Giorgi."
IMDB shows a release date of November 9, 1973 in Italy.  The film was reviewed in the November 23, 1973 edition of Variety (making no mention of Catherine), based on a viewing at the PAC Screening Room in Rome.  It lists a running time of 97 minutes.  The tepid review states in part:

"This film...is in the strict anticlerical vein with a twist all its own-a 16th century soap opera in almost every word of dialog, but with sex as the main ingredient and depravity the order of the day.

Lesbian lechery and potboiler simplicity will help 'Cloistered Nun' in many markets with undiscriminating and voyeur audiences.  Also giving it a lift is the lush facade contributed by cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi and art director Pietro Filippone.  Piero Piccioni's music is much too majestic for this trite sexploitationer.

Cast standouts are Suzy Kendall...and newcomer Eleanora Giorgi...

Domenico Paolella started the naughty nun trend in Italo cinema last year with 'The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo.'  Sequel is without preceding film's spark of historical validity, creative backgrounds and rites and the excitement of tortured intimacy of convent life."

IMDB indicates that the film was released in an English-dubbed version as The Unholy Convent in the U.S. in March of 1975, but this one sheet poster is the only information that I have seen about that release.

  
I have not seen any information indicating how the film fared at the box office.  I suspect that it made a lot of money for the producers, because as shown later in this post, it was released theatrically in a number of countries and has also received many home video releases.

Here are some on-set photos:













Italian posters and fotobustas:






A Belgian poster:

 
A Spanish poster and lobby cards:



German posters:


German program and lobby card:


A Brazilian poster:


A Yugoslavian poster:


Soundtrack Album or CD:


Magazine Photos:



Magazine cover and photo layout:















The film has received several home video releases.

Italian DVDs (2008, 2004, and unknown date):


Italian VHS:


UK DVD:


UK VHS:


German DVDs:


German VHS:

 
U.S. DVD:


Danish VHS:


Spanish VHS: