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LA VENERE D'ILLE (1978, TV Movie)
Director: Mario and Lamberto Bava
Cinematography: Nino Celeste
Story: Based on the story by Prosper Merimee
Screenplay: Lamberto Bava and Cesare Garboli
Editing: Fernando Papa
Music: Ubaldo Continello
Main Players: Marco Porel (Matthew); Daria Nicolodi (Claire); Mario Maranzana (Mr. De Perolade); Fausto Di Bella (Alfonzo)
Alternate titles: The Venus of Ille
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
SYNOPSIS:

Set in the 1800s, LA VENERE D'ILLE opens with the discovery of a large bronze statue of Venus on the estate of wealthy landowner Mr. De Perolade. Taking its discovery as a sign of good fortune for the impending marriage of his son Alfonzo, De Perolade orders it to be uncovered and displayed in the garden for all to see. In the process of doing this, one of the workers is badly injured when the statue falls over and crushes his leg. From the start, many of the townspeople believe the statue to be cursed, but De Perolade is proud of his discovery and sends for Matthew, an authority on antiques. Matthew is also impressed with the statue, which seems to exert a strange fascination over him, but before he can search the area for other artifacts, De Perolade implores him to stay at the house as his guest until the wedding is out of the way. He agrees to this and spends much of his time in the garden trying to capture the statue's eerie beauty in a series of drawings.

For most of the film, the wedding takes center stage. Bava establishes Alfonzo as a vain, insufferable idiot for whom Matthew feels obvious contempt. Things become more awkward for Matthew when his introduced to Alfonzo's betrothed, the beautiful and intelligent Claire. Matthew is particularly struck by her resmblance to the statue of Venus, but rejects her requests to paint a portrait of her. "There is something strange about you," he confesses. "I can't keep you still. You change under my very eyes. You are like two people." She is impressed by Matthew's thoughtfulness and sensitivity, but professes to prefer Alfonzo's easy charm.

On the day of the wedding, Alfonzo joins in a game of tennis. Renowned in the village as the best player in Ille, Alfonzo is aggravated when Claire's wedding ring, which he is wearing for safe keeping, costs him a shot, so he removes it and places it on Venus' finger. De Perlodade breaks the game up and rushes Alfonzo to the church, accidentally leaving the ring behind. During the ceremony, Alfonzo substitutes another ring, a gift from one of his earlier "conquests," in place of the old one.

Afterwards, during the reception, De Perlodade drunkely rambles on about the black Venus (the statue) and the white one (Claire), stating that Alfonzo did well to select the latter one for his bride. Amid all of this merriment, only Matthew and Claire seem to be uncomfortable. Suddenly Alfonzo appears and takes Matthew aside. He swears to Matthew that when he tried to remove the ring from the statue's finger, it grabbed hold of his hand and pushed him away. Though he is obviously skeptical, Matthew agrees to investigate. As he makes his way through the garden, he encounters Claire. She recognizes his infatuation with her, and they kiss. At this point, Bava reveals that the girl is not actually Claire. It is really the animated statue of Venus, whose identity is betrayed to the viewer -- but not to Matthew -- by the ring Alfonzo had earlier put on her finger. When Matthew refuses to tell "Claire" why he is in the garden, her manner turns cold and unemotional. "Youre just like all the others," she says. "You don't know how to sacrifice for love." Before he can reply, Matthew is distracted by the sounds of approaching footsteps. As he turns to face "Claire," Matthew is startled to find that she has disappeared. Abandoning his mission, he returns to the reception, only to find Claire talking with some of the other guests. He then retires to his bedroom to work on some sketches.

Meanwhile, Claire is prepared by her servants for her wedding night. She then waits in bed fro Alfonzo, who is still drinking with his friends. At this point, Bava shifts gears and introduces the first real indications of horror into the scenario. Hand-held point of view shots reveal that something is making its way into the house. It is the animated statue of Venus, though Bava wisely opts to withold its appearance from the viewer, and it is slowly making its way to the bridal chamber. It enters the room. Claire, sitting in the dark, thinks it is her husband and calls out to no reply. When she sees the apparition before her, she goes into shock and recoils into a corner. The statue then takes its place in the bed, and when Alfonzo climbs in, he is crushed to death in the statue's metal embrace.

The next morning, Matthew is awakened by the sounds of screaming and sobbing. De Perolade and his wife discover their son's mutilated body, still lying in bed. In the corner of the room sits Claire, who is destined to never recover from shock. The statue is still in its normal place in the garden, but De Perolade gradually comes to realize the awful truth, and later has it melted down and made into a bell.


CRITIQUE:

LA VENERE D'ILLE is Mario Bava's last directorial work. Even with the limitations of the television framework and the added encumbrance of a co-director, LA VENERE D'ILLE stands out as one of Bava's very finest achievements. Artfully paced, the film maintains an elegant and romantic mood from beginning to end. Doubtless most horror buffs will find the film to be a bit soft, but part of the film's effectiveness derives from the fact that the horrific elements are so gradually worked in. Apart from the opening scene depicting the worker's injury when the statue falls on his leg, the bulk of the film concentrates more on character relationships than on shock effects.

Whatever his faults as a director may be, Lamberto bava certainly manages to provide his father with a solid and well-structured script which is graced with believeable dialogue and interesting characterizations. Despite the period setting, Bava adopts a more naturalistic style which is far removed from the fairy tale worlds of LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO or OPERAZIONE PAURA. With a scrupulous eye for period detail, Bava creates an enchantingly elegant atmosphere, but he refuses to lose sight of character. Of all of Bava's films, this is one of the most concerned with characterization. It is essentially a love story, and a very compelling one at that. The film is all the more successful for avoiding cloying sentimentality. The very fact that the film is so successful reveals Bava's growth as a dramatist since LA MASCHERA, which is at its weakest when detailing the budding romance between Princess Katia and Dr. Gorobec. In some ways, Matthew's obsession with Claire recalls Maximilian in LISA E IL DIAVOLO. Yet, unlike Maximilian, Matthew is quite normal; he has no intention of forcing himself on Claire, or of doing any harm to the other characters. The repressive conventions of the period prevent him from voicing his emotions, though he comes close to doing so in the garden when nobody is watching. Paradoxically, his one big emotional moment is when he kisses the statue, believeing it to be Claire. The casting of Daria Nicolodi is crucial to the film's success. Apart from being a gifted actress, she possesses a natural beauty and is able to project strength in her characters. It is quite easy to sympathize with Matthew for being so hopelessly in love with her.

By contrast, Alfonzo is chiefly interested in Claire because she is a wealthy woman. At one point he even jokes that his Venus, unlike his father's, is solid gold. Truthfully, Alfonzo is not wholly unlikable. Unlike most Bavian anti-heroes, he is not at all deceptive. Yet, like so many bava characters, he is both greedy and self-absorbed. The delicious irony that he is crushed to death by an expensive statue is not lost on the director; it is the ultimate form of "choking to death on a silver spoon." Alfonzo's death also forms a neat connection to the ending of DIABOLIK, in which the titular character is transformed into a gold statue by the forces of greed he unleashes.

Through his unique directorial style, Bava establishes early on that the statue is not what it appears to be. For example, in one brilliantly executed scene, Matthew attempts to draw a picture of the statue, but gets the feeling that it is actually watching him. As he paces back and forth, Bava shows the viewer his point of view, and indeed the statue's eyes do seem to be following him -- Bava used a similar tactic for comic effect in EVIL EYE, the American cut of LA RAGAZZA CHE SAPEVA TROPPO. Yet, it is the subtlety of expression in this film which is most striking. In refusing to ever show the statue in motion, Bava refuses the viewer and opportunity to laugh. As the final scenes are so important to the film's success, it is doubly fortunate that he approaches the film in so restrained a manner. The shrieking music, effectively orchestrated camera movements and moody lighting create a great deal of suspense, without lapsing into absurd histrionics. A completely over-the-top film like CINQUE BAMBOLE PER LA LUNA D'AGOSTO might be able to get away with something so exaggerated as the opening party scene, but LA VENERE is a much more somber affair. If SCHOCK is a disappointing end to his cinematic career, at least this film provides the Maestro with one last chance to shine.


Review © Troy Howarth


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