Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 06, 2018 4:07 am 
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Funny creepy

Marco Ferreri's 1964 French-Italian production The Ape Woman/La donna scimmia is an odd combination of love story, horror story, and satire. It has some of the feel of the Italian comedies of the sixties, but it goes further, towards creepiness. In its story of a fairgrounds huckster and the woman he uses who loves him, it arouses obvious comparisons with Fellini's La Strada. But it's a different story. In fact, in the Bologna L'Immagine Ritrovata restoration with alternate endings, it's three stories. It's hard to know what to make of it. But it's impossible to overlook. It's one of the iconoclastic Italian director Ferreri's strange creations, brutal satire, full of Italian good humor.

Focaccia (Ugo Tognazzi) is a sleazy promotor who's enjoying a free meal in the kitchen of a Naples nunnery, when he discovers shy Maria (Annie Giraudot). When he presses and finds she's covered with soft hairs on body and face, his eyes light up with Lire signs. A series of tableau-like scenes follow, some personal, some public. Focaccia's whole effort is to exploit Maria as a freak. He pretends to have found her in a wild, ape-like state exploring in Africa, and builds a little wood cage for the shows. He teaches her to bare her teeth like a monkey and swing from a fake tree. But he can't have her with him unless he marries her. And so the wedding is one of the tableaux. It's done for publicity. Now Maria is no longer ashamed, and there are tears in her eyes as she's paraded through the street singing off-key. Her feelings are mixed, to say the least.

They are a circus-style working couple, and have a domestic life. She cooks for him. An orphan, raised in the nunnery, she learned to. After the wedding, she insists they sleep together, and they have a sex life. From the start, Focaccia is both nice and mean to her. He soothes her, saying she's "not so bad," and is affectionate. But then he takes her to a rich collector of monstrosities who, told that she's a virgin, wants to pay a large sum to have her to himself for a few days. Maria will have none of it, ending that deal. Tognazzi deserves our admiration for making the real monster, Focaccia, who will pimp out his own domestic partner and exploit her as a freak, bearable to watch, though our sympathies are always with Maria.

Things seem to be going pretty well (though Ferreri doesn't show the show-biz side of the story in much detail) when Maria gets pregnant. Another particularly creepy and compelling sequence follows when a tall, gangly young French doctor examines her for stomach pains and declares her to be pregnant, then insists that she must have an abortion. A little old domestic servant who acts as interpreter of the doctor's French is appalled, barely willing to utter the word "abortion" in Italian. The always sensible Maria will have none of this idea either.

The birth of Maria's child leads to the three endings: one sad, one repugnant, and one positive and happy. The sad ending is too abrupt and brutal and must have resulted from the censors objection to some aspects of the longer "Italian ending." Spoiler alert: here are the three endings.

In the late stages of Maria's pregnancy, there is a scene on a balcony in the nice Naples hotel where they are staying (they have dough from the "performances" even if it's going to run out soon: the hotel is paid up for the month). In it Maria touches her face, and some of the hairs are falling off. He reassures her that it's just part of pregnancy, and they'll grow back richer than ever when the baby's born. Then, after childbirth, Maria is on an oxygen tank, barely able to breathe. She is dying, and Focaccia lies to her that the baby is in an incubator doing fine, but we understand. In a brutally satirical moment, one of a set of observing doctors boasts that he can publish a good article about this.

The "unabridged Italian version" continues to show Focaccia reclaiming Maria's embalmed body from a museum, to use it as an attraction in his own circus freak show. And the state museum must turn it over, because she's his wife. A tableau of the show follows, with new details, including a male collaborator on the story of African exploration spouting learned fake Latinate phrases. This sequence is numbing.

Jump to the "French ending." Ferreri dies in French, and collaborated much with French cinematic artists. Why is this version so different, so positive? Did the filmmaker feel it was only the Italians who needed the prodding of cruel satire? Anyway, in this version, Maria does not die, nor does the baby, who is a healthy, completely normal boy, with head "as bald as an egg." She loses all her abnormal face and body hair, and becomes - the pretty Annie Giraudot, who has been lurking clearly behind the fake hair all along of course. Without the freak show wife, Focaccia complains he has no livelihood, and he fast runs out of money. He is pushed to go and work at the port. He resists, but eventually gives in. In the final tableau, a happy Maria comes to greet Focaccia after work down at the port, with their young son at her side, and pregnant again. Focaccia is making good money now, and all is well. All that strangeness is behind them. They are a normal, happy little family. As if all that came before was just a bad dream.

Produced by the impresario Carlo Ponti, The Ape Woman features the black and white cinematography of Aldo Tonti (Europa ’51, Nights of Cabiria, Barabbas) and is one of many Ferrerri collaborations wth his Spanish co-screenwriter Rafael Azcona, who wrote with him his most famous film, the all-star attack on consumerism La Grade Bouffe.

The Ape Woman/La donna scimmia, 92 mins., opened in Italian theaters Jan. 1964 and showed at Cannes 4 May 1964, and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. It opened in NYC Sept. 1964 (dismissive, abusive review by the Times' sometimes clueless Bosley Crowther). It released in France as Le Mari de la femme à barbe. A digital restoration showed at Venice Sept. 2017, and this version was shown at Lincoln Center as part of Open Roads: New Italian Cinama, where it was screened for this review.

Showtime at Walter Reade Theater:
June 5 -8:45 PM

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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