Tuesday, August 7, 2007


reVIEW (16)
INFERNO [2 of 2]

I, Varelli, an architect living in London, met the Three Mothers and designed and built for them three dwelling places, one in Rome, one in New York, and the third in Freiberg, Germany. I failed to discover until too late, that from those three locations, the Three Mothers ruled the world with sorrow, tears, and darkness.
Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs and the oldest of the three, lives in Freiberg. Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, and the most beautiful of the sisters, holds rule in Rome. Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, who is the youngest and cruelest of the three, controls New York.
And I built their horrible houses, the repositories of all their filthy secrets.
--
The Three Mothers by E. Varelli

That bit of information, given at the top of Inferno, lays out the mythology of “The Three Mothers” trilogy, and quite possibly, is the only important thing you need from this thematic sequel to Suspiria.
We learn this through Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle, who was in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express), reading from The Three Mothers. Rose suspects that she is, in fact, living in the very building Varelli built for the Mother of Darkness, and since this is a Dario Argento film, naturally, Rose is right.
Troubled, Rose writes a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey, who would go on to spend considerable time on Dallas), a Musicology student who happens to be studying in Rome. But the letter is read by Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), who, impulsively enough, goes to the address designated as the home of the Mother of Tears, apparently now a library. And again, this being an Argento film, Sara meets a messy end.
Mark then calls Rose, who asks him to come to New York. And we’re back with Rose.
Thus, does Inferno’s “narrative” free-wheel its way from city to city, from character to character, as Argento draws us deeper into the mysteries of the Three Mothers and “their filthy secrets.”

Sadly, what is clearly missing from Inferno are the elements that proved to be the enduring strengths of Suspiria: Luciano Tovoli’s cinematography and Goblin’s music. In Inferno, Romano Albani (who would go on to shoot Argento’s Phenomena) is the cinematographer, while Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) provides the score.
Neither necessarily does a bad job, but in light of the work done for Suspiria, this just seems lackluster.
Additionally, the lavish attention to detail that Giuseppe Bassan paid to the production design on Suspiria, is noticeably absent here. Nowhere in Inferno do we see sets as visually striking as those in Suspiria. (Yes, not even the underwater room where Rose drops her keys, the silly goose.)
And while Jessica Harper gave an excellent performance as Suzy Bannion, Leigh McCloskey’s Mark is a wooden bore. This is the sort of acting that would make Hayden Christensen proud. The audience is given no apparent point of identification with Mark, and we’re pretty much forced to go along for the ride for want of anybody else to peg as the narrative’s hero.

Suspiria may have had some flaws, but it’s otherwise an excellent entry in Argento’s body of work. Inferno, on the other hand, really does seem to lack the bite of its predecessor.
There was a certain clarity of vision that made Suspiria work, that made its dark Alice in Wonderland scenario resonate. Here, in Inferno, things almost seem mechanical, as if Argento were giving us exactly what we’d expect (or what he thought we’d expect).
We’re made to accept Rose’s fixation on Varelli as a matter of course, without any real explanation or sense of how that obsession came into being. It’s almost like the only reason she is so fascinated with Varelli is so the film can start.
And as the film unspools, the standard Argento strangeness plays out, but somehow, it just doesn’t engage. An antiques dealer (Sacha Pitoefi) meets an unlikely end while out drowning a bagful of cats during a total eclipse, a sequence whose only significance seems to be this: beware the hotdog men of New York.
Even the penultimate secret (the one beneath the soles of your shoes) doesn’t seem like such a big deal. And the ultimate secret, as the Mother of Darkness unveils herself, plunges the movie into Hokeysville.

Now, I am aware that Inferno has its share of defenders, who rhapsodize about the film’s nightmare logic, and even manage to finds ways to justify the leaden acting and the bizarre climax. I’m coming from a place though where I can’t help but put Inferno right beside Suspiria, and come away thinking, “Man, Suspiria was a whole heck of a lot better than this.”

In the end, Inferno really doesn’t work for me, and its only saving grace is the establishing of the “Three Mothers” mythology (which Argento and Nicolodi—who appears in Inferno as the unlikely-named Elise Stallone Van Adler—based on Thomas De Quincey’s essay, “Levana and Our Lady of Sorrows”).
The idea that all the evil and misfortune in the world exists because of a trio of ancient Mothers roosting in the shadows of their “horrible houses” is a tantalizing thought. But that thought doesn’t really come across in Inferno, doesn’t crystallize into anything with any lasting significance. Instead, much of Inferno has the ephemeral nature of a bad dream: marginally unsettling while you’re experiencing it, but once the end credits have rolled, it doesn’t really stick.
The sense of sinister mystery so evident in Suspiria is gone here, replaced by the inexplicable (il)logic of a nightmare. It’s a biting disappointment, not just in light of Suspiria, but also given that the Mother of Darkness is described as the “cruelest of the three.” There was such an opportunity here to portray that cruelty, and with the indication that she was even more pitiless than Suspiria’s Mother of Sighs, I half-expected a Grand Guignol tour de force, but instead got this confused grotesque.
I can only hope that the upcoming La Terza Madre returns to the darkling territories Argento mapped out so expertly in Suspiria.

Parting shot: Since both Suspiria and Inferno end in fire, it only seems natural, for the purposes of symmetry, that La Terza Madre should end in conflagration as well. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Speaking of symmetry though, there is something curiously apt that La Terza Madre stars the very gorgeous product of Argento and Nicolodi’s romantic relationship: daughter Asia Argento, who’s starred in a number of her father’s films (including Trauma, La Sindrome di Stendhal, and Il Fantasma Dell’opera), but who is perhaps best known to the mainstream film-going audience from films like xXx and Land of the Dead. She was also in Sofia Coppola’s brilliant Marie Antoinette.
The flesh and blood offspring of the physical union of Argento and Nicolodi, starring in the final chapter of the “Three Mothers” trilogy, the celluloid offspring of the pair’s creative union: like I said, symmetry.
Also in La Terza Madre are Udo Kier (sadly, playing a different role from the one he had in Suspiria), and naturally, Daria Nicolodi. Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin) is doing the original score.

(Inferno DVD cover art courtesy of amazon.com.)

Thanx to Carla and Ed, for the plane ticket to New York.

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