The Unique Worldview of Giulio Questi – Part 1
The Unique Worldview of Giulio Questi: Part 1 – Early Years & Django Kill by Michal, Septemer 2013
Many directors of the new generation of film makers that emerged in the sixties were identifying themselves with Marxism and leftists ideologies and tended to express their rage through the medium of cinema which was accessible to anyone, irrespective of his or her social status and intellectual level. Leftist cinema was aimed at large audiences and left-wing directors were interested in commenting the socio-political situation in Italy and introduce Marxist doctrines to Italians. Some of these filmmakers, such as Elio Petri and Francesco Rosi, used directly political genres to conceptualize some of their notions and views on the reality encircling them. Others like Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima and Damiano Damiani chose to disclose their own visions through genre cinema, notably the spaghetti western. Among these very talented directors there was one particularly protuberant figure – one of the very first provocative and thought-provoking artists who found their self-expression on account of being regaled with an opportunity to direct a spaghetti western. This man was Giulio Questi. Even though his career wasn’t sensationally prolific and his movies aren’t very prevalent nowadays, his films shed a lot of light on the emotions of left-wing intellectuals, their dilemmas and conveyed their iconoclastic tendencies perfectly.
Giulio Questi spent his early period of filmmaking mostly writing scripts and filming documentaries. One of his earliest writing efforts is the collaboration on Luigi Bazzoni’s and Franco Rossellini’s La donna del lago (1965). It is a tale about a man who returns to a little village nearby a lake after he has learned that a neat waitress Tilda died in inscrutable circumstances. Although it’s strictly an Italian mystery movie, a giallo, devoid of any political overtones, one already might discern some traits of Questi’s own surrealistic efforts. The picture isn’t marked by the grand guignol style of Questi’s successive directional works, nor by a highly grotesque synopsis, yet the ubiquitous ambiguity which exerts a subsidiary impact on Bazzoni’s movie seems a product of Questi’s intricate imagination. I do not know whether the novel on which La donna del lago is based on has similar polysemic implications, if so, Questi and Bazzoni (who was likewise interested in psychological and schizophrenic subjects and who subsequently handled a psychologically profound cult classic Le orme in 1975) might still be responsible for the surreal relish of the ensemble. All this is underpinned by Bazzoni’s and Rossellini’s unfaltering mise en scene, and Leonida Barboni’s ravishing cinematography, which endows the celluloid with stunning black-and-white visuals. Giulio Questi was constrained to await for the concretisation of his political notions and memories for the next two years.
If you live…
Even though Giulio Questi thought spaghetti westerns were “entertaining, but otherwise quite infantile”, and wasn’t exactly overjoyed at the prospect of making one, he decided to do so. While Questi was working with his friend Franco Arcalli on the script of La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Death Laid an Egg), which he would direct one year later, producer Sandro Lacovoni offered them to direct a spaghetti western, provided that both men supplied him with a theme the next morning (1) . This is how it all started. Questi and Arcalli filled the script with western elements such as ambushes, gold and violence. technically Se sei vivo spara (Django Kill) is a spaghetti western, but it must be perceived in the light of Questi’s endeavours to reconstruct his memories of portentous days of fascist Italy during World War II; for this reason the majority of the events transpiring in Django Kill are strikingly reminiscent of a war drama. The sole way of extermination of the nameless main character played by Tomas Milian and his Mexican friends reminds of an execution performed by Nazis or Fascists on rebellious civilians. Hence, there is not that much of a western in this western, but more of an exploration of the most sombre days of fascist regime when there was not a flicker of hope for those who did not approve of the reality and society’s behaviour. The whole story is situated beyond time and space and it resembles a soul’s wandering through a metaphysical world which constitutes a distorted reflexion of fascist Italy.
The movie opens with a smashingly surreal scene of the protagonist’s resurrection from his grave. The instant is very aptly shot, the lighting is ghoulish as well as ghastly and infuses an adequately lugubrious and surreal feeling into the material; from the very onset the movie embarks on a nightmarish voyage through a contrived, blood-soaked Wild West. The stranger is taken care of by two Indians who see him leave his grave and believe he’ll be able to tell them what the afterlife looks like. Scraps of the stranger’s memory are intertwined with scenes from the present; in the flashback, the protagonist is slaughtered along with the Mexicans gang members. Afterwards the remainder of the gang, led by Oaks (played by Piero Lulli), starts heading for the nearest town in the territory. They are desperate since they lost their horses which had been startled by some Mexicans trying to escape. Upon entering the town called “The Unhappy Place” and buying some horses, the gang plans to leave the town, but they do not succeed. Before they notice it, they are recognized as criminals, captured and butchered in the most savage ways. The leader is killed by the stranger himself who managed to reach the town with the assistance of befriended Indians who gave him a gun with golden bullets. The main character subsequently makes up his mind to stay in the town which turns out to be governed by smug Mr. Sorrow and his black-clad subordinates.
The allegorical nature of the motion picture is an indication that there’s more to it than just this spooky bad trip. Probably the greatest enigma of the whole western is the main character; who is he? Why does he stay in “The Unhappy Place?” One of the explanations is that the man is some kind of Jesus wandering through an evil, soulless and abominable world full of depravity, injustice, corruption and pain. He rambles without any specific direction as though he was waiting for something. For what? His resurrection might imply that he came back from the other world to redeem humanity pervaded by evil. He seeks for the good ones who may elevate humanity from its filthiness, but at the end he notices that all good people were killed and nobody is pure and innocent anymore – the moment even children begin to emulate adults’ actions, he conceives it is not worth to sacrifice his life for these people, and therefore abandons the Earth which immerses into the agony and self-destruction. Frequent use of religious symbolism – such as ceaseless washing hands, the stranger being tied to two cross-like boards – create confusion and hamper a straight-forward comprehension of the content – and this is exactly why Django Kill is so abstruse and simultaneously engrossing.
Another way of deeming his impenetrable figure is that he is not Jesus, but somebody else – his resurrection doesn’t necessarily mean that he is somebody supernatural. Whereas the Mexicans with whom he was shot might embody communists or Jews, he is possibly an opportunist – he is called “il mezzosangue” i.e. “a half-breed” – who works for himself, observing the thing happening around him in a rather impassive manner – he passionately reacts only a couple of times. An opportunist who ultimately preserves the remainder of decency – he attempts to save the angelic boy – Evan Templer – played by Raymond Lovelock, he strives to help the imprisoned spouse of the storekeeper Hagerman and he removes lifeless bodies of hanged bandits. And still, he has some foibles – once he is assured that the boy will not be insulted or hurt in any way, he rashly proceeds to enjoying himself at a party in Mr. Sorrow’s ranch. The stranger from Django Kill is a sort of angel of vengeance – he isn’t the best personality in the town, notwithstanding, the further the movie goes, the more characters get eliminated and thus at some point of the story, the stranger remains the sole good human being alive – a man who clings to no fraction at all and watches the world collapsing into an absolute chaos.
Evan and Homosexuality
The excessive violence wasn’t the reason why the movie was so controversial upon it premiere; it also contained strong homosexual elements, notably in those scenes with Evan Templer, who’s being caught by Sorrow’s gang, raped and – as a consequence – commits suicide. Given that spaghetti westerns were in the first place aimed at younger people (2) the level of sexual and physical savagery must have been outrageous to audiences and critics and induced quite a sensation. It is true that Italian westerns were always more tolerant and daring towards homosexuality than American ones, but gay influences were more on the level of overtones – like in Ognuno per se (1968) and Quien Sabe (1966) – and explicit references like in case of Django Kill were extremely rare – the one exception being El Puro (1969) in which two males explicitly kiss each other. Even though it is customary to state that the movie combines sadism and homosexuality, I am not convinced that Questi’s intention was in the first place displaying gays, but rather compounding the atmosphere of depravity and evil. Considering the allegoric nature of the motion picture, I am inclined to believe that Evan is more than just another member of the town’s community: he appears to be a symbol of purity as well as impeccability. The role of Evan was Lovelock’s acting debut and he is younger, more angelic and handsome than ever. The implied rape of Evan doesn’t look like a mere sexual act of violence, but like a debauchery of innocence which contextualizes with the political subtext more duly. This approach might be likened to Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini and it is analogous to what Pasolini was poetically endeavoring to expose through various torture acts in that film.
One of the most pungent commentaries in Django Kill is aimed at society and its attitude towards violence and a phony sense of morality created by its members in order to retain complacency and clarify their actions to themselves. The dwellers of The Unhappy Place are ruthless to the bandits who turn up in their town. Obviously, the behavior of the thugs is not anything laudable, but what is the most disquieting about the town’s inhabitants is their greed and lust for carnage. The arrival of criminals is just a pretext to embark on a massacre – the prospect of gaining some money, even by killing another human being, fills nearly all people with an irresistible indulgence. The malevolence to strangers might be likewise deemed as an allusion to nationalism and racism. Anyway, delinquents get hanged, shot and the leader dies on “an operating table” : once others learn that his body is full of golden bullets, they rush to cut out all of them and consequently Oaks dies in huge pain. Apart from that, we witness two men – Templer and Hagerman – quarrelling while dividing gold that was taken from the bandits; their quarrel is one of the central narrative elements of the movie. Both males are downright rotten and degenerated – Hagerman keeps his wife closed in a chamber in his house like a wild animal and Templer does nothing when his son gets raped and commits suicide. Evan is the only person who is repelled by the omnipresence of evil and indifference, and therefore dreams of getting out of the town, discovering another land to live. The mood of Django Kill is absolutely decadent – it depicts feelings of Italians who did not approve of Mussolini’s dictatorship and the majority of the nation which sightlessly believed in il duce.
Mr. Sorrow, His Parrot and His Formidable Subordinates
Mr. Sorrow (or Zorro – it is not clear which one of these surnames or nicknames is correct) is a rich and one of the most powerful citizens governing “The Unhappy Place”. He is a rowdy, smug and self-confident land owner and perhaps he is supposed to incarnate Benito Mussolini. Take away his beard and you’ve got a perfect Mussolini – a western type. A repugnant sadist and a scum who enjoys teasing people and doing whatever he wants owing to his fearless and violent, black-clad muchachos who embody Black Brigades – military troops of the regime – and are eager to ruin the whole vicinity if their master desires it. One of the most memorable scenes in regard to Mr. Sorrow is the one in which he’s playing with toy soldiers. As a matter of fact, the original plan of Benito Mussolini was to restore the power and lands which once were the property of Roman Empire, being oblivious of his ineffectiveness and the fact that his great speech abilities could not suffice to vanquish Europe. What does Sorrow’s parrot mean? Probably nothing, but given that Giulio Questi was a leftist it might be assumed that sipping some champagne out of his glass is a nuance to the pope’s attitude towards Mussolini’s regime and his approval of dictator’s activities, but I’d rather refrain from over-intellectualization of the ensemble; besides, the parrot comes into sight only several times and doesn’t speak too much.
End of Part 1 – Read Part 2
Part 2 and 3 of the article on Giulio Questi are continued at Furious Cinema and The Grindhouse Cinema Database.
About the author:
Michal is a student of Asian Culture in Krakow at Jagiellonian University, Poland. His cinematic interests encompass practically the entire cinema, but mostly on European (Italian, French) as well as Japanese flicks, ranging from grindhouse to art-house. Notwithstanding, what titillates him in the biggest measure is watching and writing about obscure, forgotten films which have yet to be discovered by majority of cineastes. His three favourite directors are Jean-Pierre Melville, whose Le Samouraï is his favourite movie of all time, Masaki Kobayashi and Michelangelo Antonioni. He is known on the SWDB as Mickey13