Alberto Bevilacqua (1934 – 2013) was a successful novelist who lent his talents to the cinema as a screenwriter and director of a handful of films, of which only the first few garnered any critical acclaim: The Ldy Caliph (1970), This kind of love (1971) and Eye of the Cat [Beware of the Buffoon] (1975), the latter being the best, in our opinion. We also remember with pleasure his autobiographical Blue Tango (1987), “an unusual divertissement.”
Eye of the Cat is a very literary work, written by the director and adapted for the screen in collaboration with Nino Manfredi; it cynically tells the story of an ex-fascist hierarch who wants to destroy the life of a man and ends up crushed by his own clownish revenge. Bevilacqua spares no one; his arrows are aimed at all mankind but especially at corrupt institutions, first and foremost the Church and the Sacra Rota. Nor does he spare women – they are whores and traitors and concubines who collude with the powers that be; and special attention is devoted to fascism, the myth of the Empire, and the lies of the war in Africa.
Nino Manfredi is Marcello, a musician who travels the world with his faithful friend Enzo Cannavale – a humorous element who downplays the more serious themes – and at one point sees his family carried off by the arrogant Caesar (Eli Wallach). Giulia (Mariangela Melato) is the wife who does not know love but only hatred; raped as a young girl, later a prostitute brought back on the straight and narrow by her husband, she is trying to be faithful but she cannot because she is worse than her lover. Mario Scaccia is the putative father of Marcello, he who gives him the right advice: play the buffoon to penetrate the enemy fort like a Trojan horse.
The story develops amid literary dialogue, high-brow citations and piano music directed by Ennio Morricone, and ends with the symbolic Birdsong by Clément Janequin, performed by the Ottetto vocale italiano. Mariangela Melato is beautiful and inspired, in the rough and unreassuring role as a wretched wife who does not know what she wants. Eli Wallach is perfidy personified, the fascist used to achieving whatever he wants, who is undermined by the buffoon but is basically the true clown of the story. The beautiful Loredana Bertè and Erika Blanc make fleeting appearances in a sort of anticipation of the Nazi-erotic genre, even though the scenes of their convivial meeting have an Etruscan feel. The sequence in front of the Sacra Rota for the annulment of Marcello’s marriage is an indictment of canon law and draws attention to homosexuality in the clergy. Caesar’s villa is like Gabriele D’Annunzio’s tacky, over-the-top Vittoriale, decorated with statues, marble, fascist memorabilia and souvenirs of the war in Africa. Caesar has a real court of politicians, priests, pimps, prostitutes and old loves, symbolizing the power and corruption of the world. By contrast, the buffoon has only his cat who he has sit at the table among the guests. The buffoon challenges the ras on his own ground, upsets him when, in exchange for his wife and children, he does not ask for money but just to be able to play the piano in the solitude of the attic, until the wedding day.
The film is very theatrical, the actors perform in grotesque and surreal dialogues in which the great Nino Manfredi (ironic and sarcastic) and Eli Wallach (in an excellent performance of decadence) prove outstanding, as do Mario Scaccia and Mariangela Melato. There are few outdoor scenes: Ostia, the Pyramid, Rome’s slaughterhouses, the Palatine Hill, the night-time streets of the capital. The sequence in which Caesar hits Giulia to the point of causing her to miscarry is particularly violent and raw. Marcello then brings the fallen ras to wander the streets of Rome in a crescendo of moral degradation. In the unpredictable ending, Caesar is dominated by Marcello and despairs when the musician leaves him in the company of silence, the only note he cannot understand. The marriage between Caesar and Julia is not celebrated, the bride gets rid of her veil, destroys the altar and throws away her flowers, while a wonderful sequence takes us through the Roman pine forest to the music of the Birdsong “Wake up sleeping hearts, the God of love is calling you”.
The critics did not understand the film. Mereghetti (who gives it one star) defines it as a grotesque (we agree) parable, the petit-bourgeois version of Property is no longer a theft, but without the class struggle. Morandini (two stars): “An apologue in comic opera style, although decidedly bitter in tone; a very ambitious but not very successful film in which the protagonists are to be taken more as masks than as characters. Marco Giusti says: “A highly cultural pastiche by a pretentious Bevilacqua in grotesque mode, an erotic Grand Guignol-delirium unsupported by any principle of staging”. Marco Vallora called the film infamous in the Gazzetta del Popolo, angering Bevilacqua to such an extent as to forbid Vallora from talking about his film.
This is a film that is worth retrieving. Not only because Mariangela Melato is contending with the most creepy and nude role of her career, but especially for its value as a grotesque parable, as an indictment of the follies of an absurd fascist-clerical power.
Directed by Alberto Bevilacqua. Story and cinematographic narrative: Alberto Bevilacqua. Screenplay: Alberto Bevilacqua, Nino Manfredi. Editing: Sergio Montanari. Photography: Alfio Contini. Machine Operator: Sandro Tamborra. Music: Ennio Morricone (Birdsong by Clément Janequin, performed by Ottetto vocale italiano). Art Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi. Costumes: Dario Cecchi, Ezio Altieri, Elisabetta Poccioni. Production Managers: Agostino Pane, Carlo Bartolini. Executive Producer: Renato Jaboni. Distribution: Minerva. Actors: Nino Manfredi, Eli Wallach (voiced by Sergio Fiorentini), Mariangela Melato, Mario Scaccia, Enzo Cannavale, Francisco Rabal, Franco Scandurra, Graziano Giusti, Adriana Innocenti, Ettore Manni, Cristina Gaioni, Loredana Bertè, Erika Blanc, Giuseppe Maffioli, Rolf Tasna, Alain Corot.
Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)