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:


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