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Cult Classics Revisited: THE SKIN (1981)

(Italy/France - 1981)

Directed by Liliana Cavani. Written by Robert Katz and Liliana Cavani. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Ken Marshall, Alexandra King, Jacques Sernas, Carlo Giuffre, Yann Babilee, Jeanne Valerie, Liliana Tari, Giuseppe Barra, Cristina Donadio, Maria Rosario Della Fammina. (Unrated, 134 mins)

Described as "distastefully bitter" and "a disaster" in the Maltin Movie Guide, Liliana Cavani's 1981 WWII drama THE SKIN, aka LA PELLE, is a film that's fallen through the cracks over the years, at least with American audiences. A Palme d'Or contender at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival (Andrzej Wajda's MAN OF IRON won), THE SKIN caused some controversy with its fervently anti-American sentiments, prompting Warner Bros. to back out of its US distribution deal. The Italian-French co-production's only US exposure at the time came at the 1982 Chicago International Film Festival, and even with the presence of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster, in the midst of a brief late-career renaissance thanks to his ATLANTIC CITY Oscar nomination, it found no takers. It was never commercially released in American cinemas, and it would be another 33 years before anyone got around to releasing it on US home video.

Cohen Media Group recently issued THE SKIN in deluxe Blu-ray and DVD editions as part of their "Classics of Italian Cinema" line, with a new transfer culled from a 2014 restoration that screened at the Seattle International Film Festival last summer. It's garnered a reputation among Cavani's US-based fans as a lost film of sorts, difficult to see outside of going the region-free or bootleg route, though battered, truncated, and barely watchable prints have occasionally surfaced on YouTube, usually without subtitles. Cohen's transfer is pristine (don't be put off by the terrible cover art), framed at the old-school aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (Cavani shot it that way to maximize the crowding and the claustrophobia, according to the commentary track by film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein), but the only language option is Italian with English subtitles, and in a situation like this, where many scenes involve Americans and Italians trying to communicate with one another through interpreters, it doesn't really play well when everyone is speaking Italian. This of course, is the result of the then-standard practice in Italian cinema of not shooting with direct sound and dubbing everything after the fact. Judging from how lip movements often match the subtitles, a good number of cast members are speaking English, as would be their American characters, it nevertheless takes a while to get over the distraction of seeing and hearing Lancaster and others playing American military personnel speaking in awkwardly-dubbed Italian. It's possible that an English track was either lost or never recorded in the first place, so Cohen was forced to make do with what they had. It's not a matter of being subtitle-phobic, but THE SKIN is a case where a mix of English and Italian would actually be beneficial in making the film work a little better, or at least as its story intended.

Set during the 1943 American liberation of Naples just after the German occupation, THE SKIN is based on the 1949 novel (more a loose collection of short stories and reportage) by Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte (played here by Marcello Mastroianni), a former fascist-turned-outspoken enemy of Mussolini, who had Malaparte imprisoned on more than one occasion. Malaparte served as a liaison between the Italian military and the Allied Forces in Naples, led by Gen. Mark Clark, represented in the film in the most unflattering manner possible by the rechristened Gen. Mark Cork (Lancaster). Much of the film is seen through Malaparte's eyes, but also through the vantage point of Capt. Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall), an American communications official who spends almost all of his downtime frequenting the Neapolitan brothels with what looks like the entire US military, which is essentially painted as a mass gathering of Ugly Americans. The Americans are verbally and physically abusive. They address the Neapolitans using slurs like "wop" and "greaseball." They gang-rape Neapolitan women. Cork is presented as a self-aggrandizing egomaniac prone to referring to himself in third person, demonstrating little regard for the people of Naples or even his own allies. When the Moroccan army is felled by a major syphilis epidemic, Cork denies them treatment, instead hoarding all the venereal disease medication for the Americans. Cork has instituted a ban on fishing due to mines in the water, but angrily demands fresh fish for a posh, swanky dinner where he's forced over the phone by Eisenhower and then FDR himself to entertain Col. Deborah Wyatt (Alexandra King), a high-profile pilot and the wife of an important US senator.

It's this dinner scene that's one of THE SKIN's most notorious. Earlier in the film, there's repeated mention of the desperation of the Neapolitan people. They've lost everything, they have no money, and they're starving. Some parents sell their children into prostitution, and when Wren expresses his outrage, Malaparte shrugs "It's better than eating them." Later, Malaparte is shown finishing a meal, assembling the leftover bones into the shape of a human hand and only half-joking when he mentions the concept of cannibalism as a viable option. At Cork's dinner reception welcoming Col. Wyatt, the General brags about the quality of the fish, a rare type known as Sirena, only to have the entree be a boiled child, an unforgettably horrific, disturbing image that puts THE SKIN squarely into the realm of SALO and SALON KITTY transgression. Cavani and co-writer Robert Katz (with some uncredited contributions by future ROMANCE and FAT GIRL provocateur Catherine Breillat) don't stop there, as the bullheaded Cork dismisses Col. Wyatt's cries of "It's a baby!" with "Someone needs to assume command," as he declares it's a fish, and orders it to be served (Major and Klein suggest this was done by the presumably Neapolitan kitchen staff as "a gesture of utter contempt for the Americans"). Cavani shows some restraint and spares the audience the sight of the Americans consuming the "fish," but it hardly lessens the impact of one of the most stomach-turning sights in all of Italian cinema.

Cavani goes to extremes throughout THE SKIN. Malaparte takes Col. Wyatt to a wild, decadent party where she's appalled to see the guests crowd around a bed to watch and cheer as a gay man penetrates himself with a massive dildo. The guts of an American soldier who steps on a mine spill out of his belly. The film ends with the trucks and tanks of Cork's Fifth Battalion triumphantly entering Rome after alienating the populace of Naples and leaving a trail of resentment and ill will behind. The citizens of Rome celebrate their arrival, and in the film's most infamous scene, it takes just long enough for one poor Roman bastard to cheer "Hooray for the Americans!" before a tank is carelessly driven over him, flattening him like a pancake under the tread as blood, brains, skin, and organs explode out of him. Cork and his battalion blithely drive on by the pile of mangled human flesh on the pavement, with more destruction, degradation, and tragedy sure to follow. It's intentionally over-the-top and Cavani repeatedly cuts back to the aftermath as THE SKIN is often more about using shock value to hammer home a point. A recent revisit to Cavani's most famous film, 1974's THE NIGHT PORTER, where former Nazi officer Dirk Bogarde unexpectedly encounters his former concentration camp sexual plaything (Charlotte Rampling) and the two rekindle their S&M dysfunction in 1957 Vienna, showed it to be far more tame than memory and legend served. THE NIGHT PORTER has a reputation among groundbreaking taboo-shatterers of the early 1970s that's rivaled only by Bernardo Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS, but it's really quite reserved. The ideas in THE NIGHT PORTER are certainly transgressive but the sexual imagery is sparse and not particularly explicit or boundary-pushing when held up against the publicity that butter got from the Bertolucci masterpiece.

The spectacularly misanthropic THE SKIN is a far more transgressive and disturbing film, one that gets under your own skin and almost certainly would've needed some cuts to avoid an X rating if anyone was serious about distributing it in America. In the world of THE SKIN, flesh is a commodity to be bought, sold, eaten, and fucked, sometimes all together. To Cavani, the people of Naples do it out of necessity and survival, while the Americans just indulge out of their arrogance and entitlement. The now-82-year-old Cavani is interviewed on the Blu-ray, and she claims to not understand where critics see the anti-American sentiment. America takes a beating here and Cavani is delusional or having a senior moment if she thinks that isn't the case, but really, nobody comes out of THE SKIN looking very good--not the Americans, not the people of Naples, and especially not the Moroccans, with their entire army stricken with various untreated venereal diseases but still so desperate for "something to stick it into" that they go about procuring the services of underage Neapolitan boys and girls, whored out to them by their strapped, widowed mothers. Nothing is off limits in the efforts of desperate people to scrape by. It's the feel-good movie of 1981.

One really can't fault Cavani for her relentlessly grim approach to the story and her crafting it as a nightmarish freakshow, but around the midway point, when you can't unsee Burt Lancaster ordering a bunch of gluttonous Americans to eat what's obviously a boiled child, you can't help but wonder if her points might've hit harder with a more even tone, if the satirical elements weren't played against the vile ugliness of rape and the complete disregard for human life. Lancaster's Gen. Mark Cork's delusions of self-grandeur and his stubborn arrogance put him in the same wing of military madmen as Sterling Hayden's Gen. Jack D. Ripper in DR. STRANGELOVE. Cavani's stone-faced seriousness and her decision to wallow in misery and degradation for over two hours has its place, but she has an obvious ax to grind, and doing so in a sardonic and satirical way would've had more of a lasting sting than the easy shock bits involving rape, bodily functions, and the over-the-top cannibalism metaphor. THE SKIN has observations that remain pertinent today, namely the festering resentment of a "liberated" country that's freed from the control of one only to remain occupied by another, one that doesn't understand them and only seems interested in imposing their will and rule.

Cavani and Mastroianni on the set of THE SKIN
Cavani and Lina Wertmuller were the trailblazers when it came to a woman's perspective in Italian cinema of the '70s and '80s, but it was always Wertmuller who received the bigger accolades and box office success. Cavani has her place in the movement and a staunch fan base, but commercially, she never topped or even equaled the fame and notoriety brought to her by the international success of THE NIGHT PORTER. Following THE SKIN, she directed the tawdry BEYOND OBSESSION (1982), which reunited her with Mastroianni, playing a diplomat in a Moroccan prison for murdering his wife, passing the time with conjugal visits from his sultry stepdaughter (Eleonora Giorgi), who's also involved with an American oil company engineer played by a young Tom Berenger. Cavani's next two films flopped. She had her obligatory Cannon experience with Golan & Globus on 1985's THE BERLIN AFFAIR. 1989's FRANCESCO, a biopic of Francis of Assisi starring an unlikely Mickey Rourke, was cut by nearly an hour before its straight-to-video US release by Hemdale. Cavani's credits become very sporadic after this, with 1993's unreleased-in-the-US WHERE ARE YOU? I'M HERE being her only film of that decade. Cavani has spent her recent years doing movies for Italian television, including yet another take on FRANCESCO, this time as a mini-series in 2014, starring Polish actor Mateusz Kosciukiewicz as Francis and Rutger Hauer as his father (she also made FRANCIS OF ASSISI for Italian TV in 1966, with Lou Castel in the title role). Cavani's last feature film to date has been the unfortunately doomed RIPLEY'S GAME, which was shelved for over a year by New Line before debuting on cable in 2003. Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, previously filmed by Wim Wenders as THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977), RIPLEY'S GAME, a semi-sequel of sorts to 1999's THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, is easily Cavani's most accessible, commercial film, a solid thriller anchored by one of John Malkovich's best performances as the sociopathic Tom Ripley. Malkovich's Ripley is an older and more flamboyant interpretation of the character than Matt Damon's in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, goading a terminally ill picture-framer (Dougray Scott) into becoming a hit man in order to leave money behind for his family. Considering the popularity of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY just a few years earlier, it's surprising that RIPLEY'S GAME was given such an unceremonious dumping in the US.

Lancaster and Mastroianni would continue working throughout the '80s and into the '90s, with Lancaster settling into character roles and TV-movies and Mastroianni getting his third and final Oscar nomination for 1987's DARK EYES.  Both were cinematic legends by the time of their passing (Lancaster died in 1994 at 80; Mastroianni in 1996 at 72), and remain beloved, iconic figures to cineastes the world over. That kind of big-screen fame eluded THE SKIN's young American stars. Marshall, who left medical school to pursue acting at Juilliard, made his film debut two years earlier, co-starring with Brooke Shields in the 1979 pinball comedy TILT. After THE SKIN, Marshall had the title role in the epic 1982 NBC mini-series MARCO POLO (also featuring Lancaster) and made his biggest splash the next year, starring in the big-budget 1983 sci-fi fantasy KRULL. Supported by numerous product tie-ins (arcade game, Atari 2600 game, Parker Brothers board game), but opening the same weekend as NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION in a summer dominated by RETURN OF THE JEDI, KRULL was an expensive box-office dud, though it has a sizable cult following today. And with that, Marshall's career as a Hollywood leading man was over. It would be five years before he appeared in another film, with the instantly forgotten 1988 Rebecca DeMornay/Mary Gross buddy comedy FEDS (IMDb's page lists other credits, but they have him confused with a South African actor also named Ken Marshall). For the next decade and a half, Marshall's career was mostly limited to guest spots on TV shows like BAYWATCH, HUNTER, and QUANTUM LEAP, though he enjoyed a brief resurgence in the mid '90s, by that time balding and looking like his roles were going to Kurtwood Smith instead, with a stint as the treacherous Lt. Cmdr. Michael Eddington on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. One in a never-ending line of Next Big Things who just never happened (KRULL was a flop, but it was hardly career-killer caliber), the now-64-year-old Marshall has apparently retired from acting, with his last credit to date being a guest spot on a 2003 episode of the CBS series THE DISTRICT. THE SKIN was a one-and-done journey into acting for King, a model who would soon go on to marry 1970s tennis great Ilie Nastase. She devoted her time to raising their two children and her last time in the spotlight came when she was interviewed in People in 1996 when Nastase announced his intention to run for mayor of his native Bucharest, Romania (he lost). The couple divorced in the early 2000s and she's been out of the public eye in the years since. THE SKIN remains the sole entry on her IMDb page.

Cavani surrounded by producer Renzo Rossellini, and stars
Marcello Mastroianni, Ken Marshall, and Liliana Tari
at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival.

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