Cult film fans may know Tinto Brass for sleazy epics like Caligula (1979) and Salon Kitty (1976) or his latter-day run of saucy sex comedies that make him Italy’s ass-obsessed answer to Russ Meyer. But there exists an earlier strand of his career, one altogether more offbeat and politically-charged, especially his trio of pop psychedelic experiments: Deadly Sweet (1967), Attraction (1969), and the trippiest, most mind-boggling of them all, L’Urlo (The Howl), loosely inspired by the classic beatnik poem by Allen Ginsberg.
A beautiful young bride named Anita (Tina Aumont) escapes oppressive modern society by jilting her conformist business tycoon fiancé (Nino Segurini) at the altar and setting off on a wacky, globe-trotting adventure across increasingly bizarre lands. Her travelling companion is Coso (Gigi Proietti), a Charlie Chaplinesque circus clown prone to surreal philosophical musings and outrageous disguises. Together these amiable anarchists visit a sex-club hotel (where Anita gets intimate with guests male, female and animal), escape from a family of naked bourgeois cannibals living up a tree, encounter an array of talking animals and a philosophy-spouting rock, start a riot in a political prison, liberate a town from a sadistic army, battle a wind-up midget dictator and freak-out in psychedelic orgies with naked hippie girls. Is it really happening or all a dream? More importantly, is freedom truly attainable or elusive?
Brass’ madcap odyssey has been likened to a female-centred El Topo (1971), only with scantily-clad Tina Aumont, drop-dead gorgeous in fur coat and red panties or often just plain naked, playing a prankster anarchist instead of hairy Alejandro Jodorowsky as a mad prophet-cum-gunslinger. Its free-forming plot (which Brass admits was made up as they went) and non-stop zaniness may have some howling for all the wrong reasons, but the core message about the elusiveness of true freedom is ever so slightly more accessible than El Topo’s whacked-out Zen mysticism. What’s more its punk rock energy, ribald humour (e.g. a tank gun rises like an erection at the site of Aumont in blood-splattered black lingerie), and rebellious spirit prove infectious, as Brass’ rapid-fire dream sequences borrow from slapstick silent comedy (complete with Keystone Cops!), pop art, erotic comic books, and Jean-Luc Godard style political discourse.
Like a lot of countercultural art, this bears traces of misogyny in its perhaps-cavalier treatment of rape and the inclusion of atrocity footage from various real wars (including Holocaust film), juxtaposed with rampant full-frontal nudity, male and female, and masturbation shots, skirt outright bad taste. The heroes’ almost childlike rebellious nature occasionally errs into callous disregard for everyday lives, as when they abandon the comical park keeper to his presumed death at the hands of the cannibal clan or Coso cruelly (and inexplicably) mocks and makes rude gestures towards a weeping woman at the train station. All of which, either intentionally or inadvertently on Brass’ part, goes some way to illustrate the gulf between young rebels and workaday folk that meant the Parisian student rebellion of 1968 was destined to fail.
However, there is a genuinely galvanising undertone to when Aumont machineguns the dwarf dictator, then takes over his recording studio and with her own howl instigates revolution (“Make the impossible happen!”). The sight of a peasant uprising set to a French revolutionary anthem, with teenage freedom fighters dancing round the fire, proves quite moving.
At the centre of the whirlwind rests a super-charged performance from Tina Aumont, who remains articulate and captivating with her extraordinarily expressive, doe-like eyes, no matter how off-the-wall Brass’ imagination gets.
Maria Christina Aumont was the daughter of Hollywood siren Maria Montez and French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont. Although she very occasionally graced mainstream fare, notably Texas Across the River (1966) alongside Dean Martin and Alain Delon, Aumont did her best work in Europe and worked with many a celebrated auteur including Federico Fellini, Francesco Rosi and Roberto Rossellini. She had a remarkable ability to criss-cross from art-house (Fellini Casanova (1976), Home Movie (1968)) to sleaze (Torso (1973), Salon Kitty, or Holocaust 2 (1980) where she joins a band of holocaust survivors hunting Nazi war criminals), or films that fused the two (e.g. Lifespan (1974) where she ponders the meaning of life while indulging S&M sex play), yet always gave her all and somehow remained a class act. The woman whom Tinto Brass described as the most beautiful he’d ever met sadly succumbed to a pulmonary embolism in 2006 at the age of sixty. She was a luminous performer and really shines here.
Her engaging co-star, Gigi Proietti is a much loved comic actor in his native Italy. Some may remember his turn as the villainous Cardinal Mazzarin in D’Artagnan’s Daughter (1994), while he also voiced the Genie in the Italian version of Disney’s Aladdin (1993).
Somewhat dispiritingly given the libertarian message, Brass opts for the standard copout, counterculture fatalistic ending that feels more like a way to paint himself out of a corner than provoke serious thought. What lingers most in the memory are how episodes involving a talking lion, people playing invisible instruments, and hippie happenings with psychedelic rock, conjure an almost childlike idea of the world as one gigantic playground. A vision Brass intended to embody the spirit of 1968 as opposed to merely documenting the year of revolution.