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).

Early modern

‘Concertare’: On dating Titian’s Viennese Adulteress through Sixteenth-century Venetian Culture

Barbara Czwik shares an extract of her research on Titian’s and Pordenone’s Adultress in the context of sixteenth-century Venice, offering a new perspective on its agonistic ‘culture of rivalry’.

In contrast to its ambiguous dating, the semi-figured wide format painting depicting Christ and the Adulteress which hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, is unequivocally attributed to Titian (c. 1490 Pieve di Cadore – 1576 Venice). This article offers new approaches to help resolve current doubts as to the painting’s date.

Designating a painting’s date, or datation, generally results from a process of comparing how standardised criteria are applied to a historical theme, such as devotional paintings, as well as to technical norms for, in this case, a painting on canvas. These methods, however, raise questions about a historical era’s deeper influence on the production of a work. Furthermore, such attempts risk ranking artistic “merit” simply by a work’s theme while neglecting its structural importance.

The question of dating Titian’s Viennese Adulteress in view of the painter’s cultural-historical environment, however, asks us to concentrate on its structure, and to compare it to other paintings by juxtaposing their common themes.  For example, a lost Adulteress which survived as a copied engraving originally in the Orleans Collection – of great importance in the 18th century[1] – and which was listed as a Pordenone (Albertina Vienna).[2] Comparing the two works shows that Titian produced his Adulteress around 1525. That the “unfinished” work, or a “non finite”, was started earlier remains a possibility.

Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis known as Pordenone, Christ and the Adultress, 18th century, engraving.

A comparison between certain patterns in Pordenone’s and Titian’s Adulteress points to the latter’s final version. In both works, Christ is moved from the center while the adulteress stands to the side. This unusual position emphasises her prominence beyond the centered half-figure pictures from the 1510s. On the left side of Pordenone’s painting, a rear figure is turning back and in Titian’s, this rear figure is reversed. Pordenone’s composition is braced midway by an advancing accuser. Opposite the back figure at the edge of the painting, he clings to the larger group surrounding the adulteress. This bracket pattern also appears in Titian’s rendition, but reversed: the bearded man almost has the adulteress on his arm. These resemblances suggest that a dialogue between the two artists resulted in individually composed patterns. For both Titian and Pordenone, this increased sensitivity to ancient patterns of movement was, in all probability, prompted by an exhibit of ancient bronze and marble statues from the collection of Cardinal Domenico Grimani (1461 Venice – 1523 Rome) in the Palazzo Ducale. In 1523 Domenico Grimani bequeathed this collection to Venice.[3]

Art historian Patricia Meilman’s has posited that Titian’s 1525 Petrus Martyr altarpiece may have been commissioned by the Scuola di San Pietro Martire for the Domincan church Santi Giovanni e Paolo, in Venice, in competition with Giovanni Antonio Pordenone.[4] Meilman, however, does not dwell on the competitive nature of the commission. Since this competion was not mentioned until Carlo Ridolfi’s comment in 1648, the chance of finding verifiable references is slim. Instead, Meilman looks at the broader culture of competition specific to early sixteenth-century Italy. If the creation of the Viennese Adulteress is placed within the agonistic “culture of rilvalry” of 1520s Venice, then the “agon” between Titian and Pordenone leads us to date the painting in the same period.

Other cultural trends support this argument. In music, for example, the sixteenth-century term “concertare” means “to compete.” “Concertare” implied competition between vocal soloists and instrumental music, vocal and instrumental methods or even opposing positions of sound groups.[5] The musician and music theorist Vincenzo Galilei (1520 Santa Maria del Monte – 1591 Florence) spoke of “a concert of violas” (un concerto di viole), whereby competing string groups stood in the service of “the voice alone” (a voce sola). The “concertante style” in music develops, when “[q]uasi conversations are conducted between voices, as both concurrent phenomenon and aftereffects of ‘dialoghi’ from similar temporal and stylistic forms.”  

If the cultural style of the 16th century was marked by this “concertare principle,” so too was the rivalry between Titian and Pordenone. The related principle of the “non finite,” which may have influenced how Titian’s “unfinished” work engages the viewer in the process of perception,[6] also suggests a dialogic relationship along the lines of cultural theories.[7] Other sixteenth-century principles of “dialoghi” were inspired by ancient texts like Plato’s Theaitetos, first published in Venice in 1513 by M. Musoros.[8] Just as “astonishment” ignites all cognition and philosophy, and inspires our search for missing knowledge, so the observer of Titian’s Viennese Adulteress does not stand before a finished work, but rather is bound in a process of communication with it – the sense of “non finite.”

The alleged rivalry between Titian and Pordenone may reflect a conversion of ancient dynamics into individual artistic language, arguably comparable to the “miracles” of ancient music associated with Lomazzo’s art of painting, in which the perception of movement kindles specific emotional responses.[9] For his Viennese Adulteress then, Titian seems to have found a “concertare” partner in Pordenone.

[1] Nicholas Penny, The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, Vol. 2, Venice 1540 – 1600 (London: National Gallery Company 2008), 462 – 463.

[2] Published in: Clara Garas, ‘Giorgione et Giorgionismes au XVIIe siecle,’ Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts 27 (1965): 41.

[3] Patricia Meilman, Titian and the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 101.

[4] Meilman, Titian and the Altarpiece, 90 – 108.

[5] Guido Adler, Der Stil in der Musik, I. Buch, Prinzipien und Arten des musikalischen Stils (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1911), 262.

[6] Philippe Junod, ‘Vom Componimento inculto Leonardos zum oeil sauvage von André Breton,’ in Die Unvermeidlichkeit der Bilder, ed. Gaerhart von Graevenitz, Stefan Rieger andFelix Thürlemann (Tübingen: G. Narr, 2001), 132 – 138.

[7] Leon Battista Alberti, Das Standbild, Die Malkunst, Grundlagen der Malerei, ed. Oskar Bätschmannund Christoph Schäublin (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2000), 143 – 144. Leonardo da Vinci, Tratatto della Pittura (Codex Urbinans Latinus 1270), Parte Seconda, 63.

[8] Platon, Theaitetos, trans. Friedrich Schleiermacher, ed. Karl-Maria Guth (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 2.

[9] Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Trattato Dell’Arte De La Pittura, Libro Secondo (Mailand 1584), 105.

Further Readings:

  • Adler, Guido. Der Stil in der Musik, I. Buch, Prinzipien und Arten des musikalischen Stils. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1911.
  • Meilman, Patricia. Titian and the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Dr. Barbara Czwik is a free lance art historian based in Vienna.

Murals Street Art

Life And Love At The Time Of Covid-19: Story Of An Impossible Touch

Dr Ilaria Grando shares a personal account of the Coronavirus emergency in Northern Italy, explored through the lens of Milanese urban art culture.

Can you imagine living in a world where you cannot give a hug, a kiss, or even a caress to your loved ones? Can you imagine living in a world where you relating to the other implies at least 1-metre distance?

“We are only left with a window view,” said my mother watching the moon shining bright and free in a dark sky. I cannot remember which day of the Italian lockdown it is. Time in quarantine runs as dense as honey, days overlapping with each other. Out there the world as I knew it has changed. The cities are deserted, the hospitals overcrowded. My country is padded in a noisy silence. And for me, a quarantined person in the North of Italy, it is a war within. I am not living with the virus, but I am living under its dictatorship.

In a red area country, the rules to follow are simple. Do not leave the house; clean often; if you have to leave the house for exceptional reasons keep at least 1-meter distance from and to another individual; avoid handshakes and hugs; do not touch eyes, mouth, and nose with your hands; cover mouth and nose when you are coughing or sneezing; wash your hands frequently; wear a face mask if you believe to be ill or if you are taking care of someone who is ill.[1] More simply: minimise and if possible avoid any unnecessary form of physical interaction. 

A humanity who has been deprived of touch, the humanity living at the time of COVID-19 has elected as its symbols face masks and hand-sanitisers. In the age of a celebrated virtual living, the pandemic has confined us to the sole use of the web as a way of communicating and interacting with other human beings, generating a crisis within the crisis. Italian street artist Tvboy has captured the problem in an image soon elected as a symbol of the COVID-19 reality in Italy. 

‘L’Amore ai Tempi del CO…VID-19’ ©Tvboy 2020.

“L’Amore ai Tempi del CO…VID-19” (Love in the Time of CO…VID-19) appeared on the 28th of February 2020 in the streets of Milan. The announcement, given by the artist himself on social media, did not reveal the exact location of the work, leaving an aura of mystery.[2] Colouring an outside that is no longer accessible, Tvboy’s work appropriates a painting, symbol of the Italian Romantic movement, Francesco Hayez’s Il Bacio (The Kiss). Presented for the first time in Brera in 1859, Hayez’s work was meant to celebrate the positive outcome of the Second War of Italian Independence.[3] Set in an imagined Middle Ages, Il Bacio conveys the hopes of a soon-to-be nation in the tender kiss of a young couple.[4] The success of the painting is immediate: the audience likes the subject and understands the message clearly.[5] Eight years later, Hayez decides to approach the work again, and realise a second version to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle.[6] The political situation has changed, Italy is now an independent reign, and the colours can become livelier. The Italian and the French flags shine with decision in the clothes of the young lovers: in their kiss a story of alliance and national independence, in their kiss, the story of those who have left their country and loved ones to fight for their nations.[7]

1867, Il Bacio as the emblem of the individual’s sacrifice for the common good.

A hundred and sixy-oneyears later, Hayez’s young lovers are still engaging in a tender kiss but the premises are completely different. Tvboy, an artist living at the time of COVID-19, has thoughtfully provided the main characters with face masks. Once again, Art exits History to make sense of the present. This time, however, the image becomes paradoxical. The kiss is not a passionate expression of love but a representation of a past that, for now, can no longer be. Looking at Tvboy’s work, the audience will probably recall the adolescent beauty of Hayez’s painting, some will even remember its historical meaning. But in the clashing evidence of the differences standing between the two images, they will also start to question the realities depicted, confronting them to what it means to live and love at the time of COVID-19. Observing the image and comparing it to its original, it is soon clear that Tvboy’s lovers have very little to do with Hayez’s. The couple is close and yet extremely distant: they are protecting themselves from each other. The embrace is clumsy, unsure; their hands are too busy holding onto a hand sanitiser bottle to hold each other, and the kiss is obstructed by a safety mask. Touch but not touch. Kiss but not kiss. Tvboy’s couple is the perfect depiction of a virtual love that cannot exist in the practicality of life. I imagine the instant after the kiss, and I see a sudden departure of the two, almost as if, waking up from the suspend time of History, the lovers would finally realise how things have changed, and how their present, which is my present, can no longer permit their kiss.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization has officially called the COVID-19 crisis a “pandemic”.[8] 416,686 cases, 18,589 deaths in 196 countries (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm CET). 57,521 cases, 7,503 deaths, and 9,362 healed only in Italy (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm). Over 15 days upon changing my status from Italian citizen to Red Area inhabitant to citizen of a world facing a pandemic, I listen to the news with increasing concern letting tears streams out of my eyes.

The politics and the poetics that have defined Il Bacio since day one are once again summoned. Mediated by Tvboy, the painting adapts its meaning to the contemporary time, exiting its historical dimension. In the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see the big little sacrifices everyone is doing for the common good; in the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see a past memory, and the hope to make it a present reality soon.

2020, Il Bacio as an emblem of tomorrow when we will take those masks off, and kiss again. 

[1] “FAQ – Covid-19, domande e risposte; Prevenzione e Trattamento,” Ministero della Salute, Mar 10, 2020, accessed Mar 12, 2020,

[2] Tvboy (@Tvboy), Tweet. Feb 28, 2020, access Mar 12, 2020,

[3] Giovanna Galeschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (Sep 1, 2007): 346.

[4] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020,—Puntata-del-06122015-cc4b6ef1-3d55-406e-970a-337c67c3625a.html

[5] “Il bacio, Francesco Hayez,”Pinacoteca di Brera, accessed Mar 25, 2020,

[6] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.

[7] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346-347; Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.

[8] Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020,” World Health Organization, Mar 11, 2020, accessed Mar 12 2020—11-march-2020.

Further Readings:

  • Nancy, Jean Luc, Georges Didi-Huberman, Nathalie Heinich and Jean Christopher Baily. Del Contemporaneo: Saggi su Arte e Tempo. Edited by Federico Ferrari. Milano: Pearson Paravia Bruno Mondadori S.p.A, 2007.
  • Faleschini Lerner, Giovanna. “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History.” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (2007): 342-358.

Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher. Her PhD thesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in the USA, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. Ilaria is currently interested in questioning the visual culture that surrounds health and illness and developing an intimate art history. 

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.