Film theory Politics

Time and terror: what an Italian 70s movie can tell us about radicalisation in the age of late capitalism

Giulia Delprato and Laura Scalabrella Spada explore the farcical and terrifying world of long-forgotten Italian movie …hanno cambiato faccia, where CEOs, board meetings and TV ad breaks are revealed to be the stuff of nightmare.

‘Capital is dead labour,
which, vampire-like,
lives only by sucking living labour,
and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’
Capital, Karl Marx

Most vampire movies today are based off the same premise: what if vampires were still among us? What if they survived, abandoning the mists of their nebulous Transylvanian past and moving to the more tangible realities of western modernity? What if they managed to blend into society, biding their time, waiting for a moment of weakness to strike?

So far, nothing new, except for the common addition of (frankly toxic) love stories, often predicated upon misogynistic fantasies of power imbalances misconstrued as timeless romance – thanks very much, Bram Stoker.

A 1971 Italian horror film, …hanno cambiato faccia (They’ve Changed Their Faces), however, attempts the impossible: combining the post-draculian vampire with its previous, perhaps even more influential iteration, that of the capitalist.

Boring, mediocre, petit-bourgeois Alberto Valle is an accountant employed by a comically large company.  One day, he is asked to meet the owner Giovanni Nosferatu (a tongue-in-cheek reference to industrialist Giovanni Agnelli, owner of Fiat and Juventus FC, and the vampire protagonist of the 1922 German expressionist film[1]) in his country mansion. The deceiving appearance of Nosferatu’s villa, ancient and in decay outside but full of immaculate modernist furniture inside (with built-in speakers for bespoke advertisement), mimics that of its owner. Valle soon finds out that his host is not only the owner and CEO of a major corporation, but a malicious, eternal being, who capitalises on consumerist lifestyle to dominate people – sucking life out of them, just like his blood-thirsty counterparts.

At a superficial glance, …hanno cambiato faccia seems to borrow random tropes from the Italian giallo tradition,[2] placing mismatched stereotypes here and there: both the helpful and flirtatious assistant and the sexually liberated hitchhiker echo different strands of the 70s obsession with ‘liberated’ sex, more often than not an excuse to objectify women. These characters are reminiscent of allusive, seedy gialli like Sergio Martino’s Tutti i Colori del Buio (1972; the protagonist and Martino’s brother’s wife at the time, Edwige Fenech, is perhaps better-known for her career in Italian soft-porn comedies, popular between the 70s and the 80s), while the isolated village where everything seems shrouded in superstition echoes the sinister atmosphere of one of Fulci’s masterpieces, Non Si Sevizia Un Paperino (1972). It goes without saying, these are all must watches.

Still from …hanno cambiato faccia.

Like many movies of that time, …hanno cambiato faccia combines the experimental ostinati of 1970s rock to eerie scenes of bleak rural landscape. The more Alberto’s tin car cuts through the fog of the Italian countryside, the more our tension increases. With every turn of the road, time seems to become loose. In a Foucauldian manner, we are reminded of its increasing meaninglessness by multiple striking of church bells, suggestive of the institutional rings of school, factory, or even prison cell bells, whose noises become an apparatus of discipline, surveillance and punishment inherent to capitalist ways of marking time. At the same time (excuse the pun), clocks are also winding back to the time of myths and immortal beings from which both iterations of Nosferatu, the company boss and the long-fingered vampire, hail from.

Still from …hanno cambiato faccia.

Cut to inside the house, where the incessant ticking is mirrored by office knick-knacks, covering a whole table in Nosferatu’s sitting room. These embody, perhaps, a symbolic remnant of office work. But why so many?

In this time of isolation, while the idea of a comfortable mansion sitting in the middle of the woods filled with all sorts of commodities sounds sort of reassuring, it stirs up questions about how will isolation change the way we think about desk-work. Ironically, it also highlights the recent discovery made by certain middle class media that vital work is not done at a desk, and the real forces of production do not lie in CEO offices but in the hands of labourers or, as we have learnt to say now, key workers.

The parasitical nature of office work emerges, in this movie, through a pungent if unsophisticated satire of mid-20th century corporate culture. In a key scene, we are shown a long meeting happening in a secret (and yet, for Alberto, surprisingly easy to access) basement room where caricatures of power speak at length of how they dominate the life of everyday people. Sometimes, these sequences transform into grotesque caroselli, a narrative-driven early form of TV advertising quintessential to the upbringing of every Italian child born between the 50s and the end of the 60s. One of these, perverted to the point of hilarity, is a particularly twisted ad for a newly discovered chemical, LSD, which of course Nosferatu plans to send into large distribution soon.

Still from …hanno cambiato faccia.

The meeting seems to be another manifestation of how capitalism’s machinations happen in plain sight, yet we decide to remain oblivious to them: consumerism as a form of control is the mantra snaking its way throughout the movie. In a particularly surreal scene, one of the corporate suits fails to meet his targets and Nosferatu quite literally gets rid of him, by sending him out to be run over by one of his roving white Fiat 500s, which police his estate – a modern update to Dracula’s bats and wolves.

Still from …hanno cambiato faccia.

So, back to the the knick-knacks left behind in Nosferatu’s lobby and their incongruous number: are they perhaps some kind of simulacra or metonymies, indicating the ease with which workers can be substituted in Nosferatu’s (our?) world? After the line manager man dies, Alberto is offered to replace him with a new, high-profile job in Nosferatu’s corporation. Nosferatu doesn’t question so much whether he will accept or not, but rather, when.

The movie is bookended by a spurious quote from Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 subversive study of political regimes One-dimensional Man: ‘Il terrore, oggi, si chiama tecnologia’ (Terror, today, equates technology). And while the original sentence is less punchy, its content is as relevant as ever – technology has been colonised by social forces as a form of discipline and control. We do have furniture with built-in speakers, but rather than spewing advertisement, they listen to our conversations. We did embrace consumption not only as a lifestyle but also, naively, as political statements. The products we buy, supposedly, say things about us – we vote with our wallets, as the libertarian saying goes.

Since the COVID-19/coronavirus crisis started, many self-proclaimed left-wing newspapers have been incessantly publishing articles full of well-intentioned banalities about how we should ‘build a better world’ and ‘reward our hero key workers’. Asking us to forget, perhaps, that the world we live in has been deliberately designed to be a machine oiled by the blood of the vulnerable, hostages to capitalism rather than selfless heroes. And while the lack of critical thinking and class analysis in contemporary liberal discourses is nothing new, we wonder if there is anything we can learn from the crass, grotesque allegories of this strange, almost forgotten movie. Can we choose to see what is in plain sight? Can we internalise the radical message of …hanno cambiato faccia?

[1] Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, 1922, dir. Friedrich W. Murnau. …hanno cambiato faccia pays homage to this incredibly influential silent film in a number of scenes, such as those in which Giovanni Nosferatu walks up the stairs of his countryside villa – a reference to the iconic shadow of Count Orlok climbing up a staircase.

[2] The giallo genre is a typical expression of Italian mid-20th century cinema, which combines thriller, horror and mystery tropes.

Further readings:

  • Baschiera, Stefano, and Russ Hunter, eds. Italian Horror Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
  • Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: O Books, 2009.
  • Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.

Giulia Delprato is a writer and photographer currently working at the Museum of London.

Laura Scalabrella Spada has recently completed her PhD at University College London in the Department of History of Art (see more here).

Film theory

‘How can a house have laughing windows?’

Grotesque Hallucinations and the Giallo Genre

Dr Laura Scalabrella Spada delves into a little known Italian thriller and explores themes of inversion, femininity and abjection.

The horror genre and the house always went hand in hand. From Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher to Parasite, houses are sites of danger, mystery, and death. Houses hide secrets, curses, outsiders; they can be colonised by evil spirits; they can be ransacked by dangerous individuals.

Many feminist scholars have pointed out that the house represents a site of fears and vulnerability for women in particular. Houses can embody physical manifestations of the oppression and violence they underwent.

But sometimes this dynamic is upended. A little know Italian film, La casa dalle finestre che ridono (House of the laughing windows) by Pupi Avati (1976) provides a unique take. This film is associated with the Italian giallo, a cinematic term which combines thriller, horror and mystery genres.

Original poster for La casa dalle finestre che ridono, dir. Pupi Avati, 1976. The poster art copyright is believed to belong to A.M.A. Film.

In the movie (spoilers!), conservator Stefano is hired by the mayor of a lethargic, isolated village near Ferrara to work on a fresco in the local church. The fresco was made by the painter Buono Legnani, who died with his sisters in mysterious circumstances. Rumours about their madness and the strange, perverted rituals they engaged with circulate in the village, spread, among others, by the local priest. Legnani, Stefano learns, used to live in seclusion in a house with disturbing open mouths painted on the windows, in which he killed and then painted his victims. Soon, the situation precipitates: the painter’s killings have resumed, and Stefano must fight for his life. He scrambles to the church in search of safety, but here he finds, in an unprecedented twist, that the friendly priest had always been one of Legnani’s sisters – and she is ready to kill.

La casa dalle finestre che ridono is a movie structured on grotesque inversions and oppositions. The painter Legnani projects his murders onto (frankly ugly) religious artworks, such as the fresco of Saint Sebastian Stefano is hired to restore. Why would the local church commission and subsequently display disturbing paintings by the village madman is unclear. In a different movie, perhaps, these paintings would assume the role of narrative simulacra, and offer a philosophical take on the nature of images as signifiers of death – arresting the possibilities of life, turning motion into stillness. In this movie, however, they are to be taken at face value: Legnani’s Saint Sebastian is a childish mass of flesh and blood. And perhaps precisely because of this almost farcical forwardness, it appears to us as harbinger of a tangible sort of abjection.

The grotesque is, by definition, that which remains at the margins. In pre-modern scholarship, it is associated with the unrestrained, troublesome powers of creativity. The grotesque exemplified, for influential theorists of aesthetics such as Horace, Vitruvius and Vasari the threat posed by the profane, the alien, the feminine and the wild. Today, writers tend to emphasise its lack of definite forms. We call grotesque that which exists in between categories, what remains at the margin of consciousness, simultaneously known and unknown, perceived and unperceived. A sense of grotesque arises even more forcefully with the perception that something might surreptitiously exist within something else.

This idea of illegitimate presence is, in my opinion, the narrative thread that binds the movie together. One of its many sites of such tension is the hostility between Stefano and the village itself, in which inhabitants are custodians of local, dangerous secrets – a well-loved trope in the giallo genre. This theme emerges in other contexts too: why is Legnani’s house painted with smiling mouths? The combination of architectural and organic is a hallucinatory vision that has nothing to do with pareidolic perception. The laughing windows instill an embodied fear, one that even more forcefully presents itself upon the realisation that they offer no ulterior meanings. They laugh, it seems, at the viewer who desperately tries to make sense of them.

The final twist blurs perceived assumptions of gender and societal roles, and produce a defamiliarisation that would have been much more intense in the deeply religious catholic Italy of the 1970s. The ‘female priest’, director Pupi Avati recalls in an interview, was a folklore bogeyman his mother would use to frighten him into good behaviour. The fantasy of a female, murderous priest was unheard of and particularly disturbing, and not simply because religious figures are inherently associated with the divine. Women are excluded from priesthood, out of place in catholic power dynamics.

The clandestine presence of the feminine becomes in this context a slippage in established knowledge: traditional modes of interacting and understanding are destabilised. If the sense of grotesque emerges when things should not be where they are, the disruptive self-insertion of a woman in the hierarchical structures of organised religion produces a kind of undoing that is not simply psychoanalytical or societal. In La casa dalle finestre che ridono, bodily annihilation is very much in the picture.

Further readings:

  • Baschiera, Stefano, and Russ Hunter, eds. Italian Horror Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
  • Connelly, Frances. The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture – the Image at Play. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. ‘A Brutal Nobility: Painting Death in The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976)’. Bright Lights Film Journal, 2014.