Monday, January 21, 2013

Submission of a Woman (Al Calar della Sera) (Coletti Productions, 1992)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was an Italian psychological thriller with horror overtones, released in the U.S. as Submission of a Woman — though that’s not a literal translation of the original Italian title, Al Calar della Sera, which has proven surprisingly difficult to dope out on the Internet. The Web site defines the Italian verb calare as “to lower, decrease, drop,” and gives such examples of its use as calare il sipario (“lower the curtain”), il prezzo della benzina è calato (“the price of gas has gone down”), al calar della sole (“at sunset”) and al calar della luna (“when the moon has gone down”). Sera simply means “evening” — I’ve always been amused by the name of one of Italy’s most prestigious newspapers, the Corriere della Sera, which sounds impressive but simply means “evening paper.” Ironically, the Web also gave me a Spanish meaning for calar — “to soak through, pierce, penetrate” — which actually seems more apropos to this movie than the Italian word because it is literally a film about rape. It opens with an unknown woman being menaced by a mystery man, identified in the dramatis personae only as lo psicopatico — “The Psychopath” (Paolo Lorimer) — who fondles her breasts, then takes a hunting knife to her and rubs it over her skin, then stabs her with it, though writer-director Alessandro Lucidi is decorous enough that he doesn’t actually show the knife puncture the skin; we simply see the woman’s facial expression change from terror to searing pain, we hear her cry out, and then Lucidi cuts to the blood from the wound dripping on her floor.

Then we meet the film’s heroine, Luisa (Daniela Poggi), who’s being menaced by a character clad as a vampire who’s left the obligatory two puncture marks on her neck — only, in a gimmick that was probably pioneered by Victor Schertzinger in the 1937 musical Something to Sing About but is still appealing, the camera pulls back and we see that we’re on a film set, with an announcer declaiming that such-and-such a brand of sticking plaster will cover and help heal any wounds. Luisa is an actress who has achieved a reputation for sexy commercials, but now she’s married a rich man, Giorgio (Gianluca Favilla), and she doesn’t have to work — she was only doing this one last commercial as a favor to its director, an old friend, but she’s decided to stop displaying her underwear and bras on TV. She lives in a large house in the country with her husband and their baby daughter Francesca (Cecilia Luci — she’s identified only as la bambina, “the baby girl,” on the film’s page), only their neighborhood is being menaced by the mystery man and Luisa herself has been receiving hang-up phone calls from him. That evening she and her husband are planning what one of the subtitles refers to as “the climbing” — were they planning an evening workout on one of those faux mountainsides inside a gym that are supposed to enable you to practice rock climbing? — and then a dinner out, and for that purpose they’ve called a babysitter, Paola (Anna Orso), to watch Francesca and work the night for them. Only, wouldn’t you know it, after about 45 minutes of slow, disquieting buildup lo psicopatico crashes their property, kills Giorgio (the synopsis on the DVD box says he’s only “beaten to a pulp” but it’s pretty clear in the actual movie that he dies; it’s also likely that the blurb writer never actually saw the movie, since the blurbist says that Luisa and Paola are forced to watch Giorgio get beaten, but in fact the psycho kills Giorgio outside the house, while he’s out of Luisa’s eyeshot or earshot, and before Paola arrives at all) and menaces Luisa, whose only precaution is to dissolve a sleeping pill in baby Francesca’s drink and hide her in a closet so hopefully she’ll sleep through the whole thing.

The man forces Luisa to have sex with him — though once again Lucidi is subtle about this; instead of showing an out-and-out rape he simply has Luisa instructed to fondle the man’s crotch, and we don’t get to see dick (darn! As vicious a character as Paolo Lorimer is supposed to be playing, and as oddly as he’s made up — the filmmakers seem to have wanted his face to be as white as possible to make him look especially sinister — his basket looks hot enough that a lot of straight women and Gay men in the audience were probably thinking, “He wouldn’t have to rape me!”) — and when Paola arrives he makes Luisa tie her up. Then, after Luisa has been (im)properly humiliated and subjugated, she gets to turn the tables by drenching the man in kerosene, then getting a box of matches and threatening to set him on fire. She and Paola then have a debate over what to do with him — Paola wants to call the police and have him arrested, while Luisa, distrustful of the court system and sounding like the assembled criminals in M as they mock that film’s psychopath’s plea that he can’t help himself, wants to kill him then and there and is about to do so when the sleeping drug she gave baby Francesca wears off and the kid starts crying. Luisa goes upstairs to the closet to tend to her daughter, and while she’s gone the man manages to regain control of the situation and escape. Luisa sets off after him in her car — there’s a great moment of suspense as to whether the thing will start since she’s been having trouble with it earlier — and ultimately sees a man walking around in the dark and runs him over. I was wondering if he was going to turn out to be an innocent bystander Luisa merely mistook for the psycho — who in the meantime had been shown in extreme close-ups focused on his eyes, which had led my viewing companion to think that he was actually in her back seat, just waiting to strike — but no-o-o-o-o, he’s apparently the real deal, and when Luisa recognizes him as such she deliberately drives her car over him just to make sure she kills him. The End.

Submission of a Woman is the sort of story one would expect to see on Lifetime in the U.S. — the DVD box blurb writer describes it as “a late entry in the infamous Italo ‘rape & revenge’ canon” — but the Italian version is different from the putative American one mainly in that it’s a good deal slower and more atmospheric than a U.S. (or Canadian) director would have made it. In its genre category on it’s listed as “horror” as well as “thriller,” and indeed the cold-dark-night setting and the heavy-duty atmospherics and general air of doom indicate that writer-director Lucidi was going as much for the horror tropes as the thriller ones. It’s also different from an American “take” on this story in that it has so few people in it — there aren’t the elaborate introductions of everyone else important in Luisa’s life we’d have got in a Lifetime movie with this premise — and in keeping Luisa’s revenge private instead of involving the police, either to save her or to investigate her afterwards as a murderess. Submission of a Woman is a deceptive title — one would expect an S/M tale in which a woman is attacked by a sexual assailant but decides midway through that she likes what he’s doing to her and ends up in thrall to him as his sex slave — but it’s a good film even though sometimes it gets a bit too slow and atmospheric for its own good.