‘Even an idiot like you can have his say.’
A petty thief is freed from prison when the people of Milan take to the streets to overthrow the occupying forces of Austria. Unable to escape the resulting mayhem, confusion and violence, he roams the city with a young baker, seeking sanctuary or escape. At first, the situation does not seem all that serious, but events escalate quickly…
After his runaway success with his ‘animal’ trilogy of Giallo thrillers, young Italian director Dario Argento attempted to break away from dark horror with this historical comedy-drama. Set in the streets of Milan during the 1848 revolution, it’s a heady mix of comedy, tragedy and political commentary.
Cynical thief Cainazzo (Adriano Celentano) is one of the handful of odd men out in his communal prison cell. Most of the few dozen inmates have been incarcerated for engaging in acts of civil unrest against their Austrian overlords. Celentano, however, is taking the rap for a job that went south. Rumours of revolution are running rife, but it’s all the same to him; he’s only interested in looking after number one. However, when the prison walls are demolished by sudden cannon fire, it’s an excellent opportunity to take a powder. Once on the street, he determines to look for his ex-partner, Zampino (Glauco Onorato) but ends up saddled with naive young baker Romolo Marcelli (Enzo Cerusico) instead.
Amazed to discover that Onorato is now a hero and a leading light of the revolution, Celentano searches through the chaos, almost connecting with him several times. Meanwhile, he and Cerusico encounter various eccentrics and unusual situations. They meet the Countess (Marilù Tolo) and her entourage as they build a barricade in the street and, later on, they help a pregnant woman (Luisa De Santis) deliver her baby. They’re pressganged into the detachment of deranged revolutionary Baron Tranzunto (Sergio Graziani) and take part in the successful defence of Tolo’s barricade. Afterwards, the noblewoman entertains the survivors one by one in her bed-chamber after becoming sexually aroused by all the blood and violence.
Celentano and Cerusico eventually take refuge in the home of a young widow (Carla Tatò) whose husband was hung as a spy. It’s not long before she’s making love with Cerusico, her experience enhanced by Celentano reciting a list of different types of bread. After leaving the couple to it, Celentano finds himself invited to a public ‘banquet for the people’ only to discover that he’s expected to serve the wealthy guests rather than eat at their table. As the Austrians prepare a strategic withdrawal from the city, he finally links up with revolutionary hero Onorato, only to discover that all it’s not what it seems.
It’s fair to say that comedy doesn’t always cross national boundaries and Italian humour, in particular, leans heavily on the slapstick rather than the subtle. This quality is very evident in some of the early set pieces, such as when Cerusico is covered in flour when his bakery explodes, and Argento undercranks the camera to speed up the action in a way reminiscent of silent films. Some performances fit this approach, particularly Tolo’s hyperactive, sex-mad Countess, which is memorable if little more than a scene-stealing cameo. For the most part, the political satire is also a little heavy-handed, although there are a couple of very effective sequences. At one point, Celentano is alone in the street, carrying the revolutionary flag, utterly unaware that a silent mob has begun to follow him, assuming him to be a leader on his way to the fight. In reality, he’s only holding the colours to avoid getting shot as a spy.
At almost two hours long, the film feels like a series of vignettes for the longest time, with events loosely connected by the time and place but not a developing plot. The two protagonists lurching aimlessly from one new situation to the next robs the film of any fundamental structure, and, overall, it feels clumsy and directionless. This problem is exacerbated by the final act when actions suddenly begin to have consequences and events move to a very dark conclusion. It feels far too late in the day to introduce an actual plot, and striking the right balance between slapstick and tragedy is extremely difficult. The film would have benefited greatly from some heavy editing in the first half to alleviate this tonal clash.
Despite the shortcomings of the project, it’s worth mentioning that Argento still displays his skill as a filmmaker. There’s his usual good use of locations, and he mounts the later action scenes with a confident touch. The editing choices and camera movements serve the story by resisting the stylistic flourishes and innovations employed in his Giallo thrillers. It’s ironic, then, that the film’s most memorable moments occur when he does indulge himself with two slow-motion sequences. In the first, the Austrians gun down a young mother in the street while her young child runs away screaming; in the other, a man is shot in the back of the head in an extreme close-up. Unfortunately, the first half of the film was a knockabout comedy!
The film was a significant box office failure in his homeland, and Argento retreated into the world of the Giallo with ‘Deep Red/Profondo rosso’ (1975). He has concentrated on such material ever since and, to date, has not ventured into the commercial mainstream again. It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened if the film had been a success. The world may have missed out on such incredible works as ‘Suspiria’ (1976), but, then again, his decline over the past couple of decades may not have been so significant if he’d diversified his subject matter and output to some extent.
An undoubted misfire but still of interest to fans of Argento’s work.