The Witches (1966)

| February 2, 2018

Silvana Mangano instantly became a screen icon with her appearance in Giuseppe De Santis’s 1949 crime drama Bitter Rice, the same year she married an up-and-coming film producer named Dino di Laurentiis. By the mid-1960s, di Laurentiis had become quite successful thanks in part to his involvement with films by Federico Fellini (including La Strada and The Nights of Cabiria) although he also dabbled in more overtly commercial projects as well (like Sergio Corbucci’s Maciste contro il vampiri in 1961 and Tinto Brass’s The Flying Saucer in 1964). Mangano had remained in the public eye with steady work on the big screen, and in 1967 di Laurentiis produced a lavish tribute to her. Le streghe (or The Witches) was a portmanteau film that brought together five well-known directors to create a short film featuring Mangano, and it has now received a very nice Blu-ray edition in the States from Arrow Academy.

After a psychedelic animated opening credits sequence, the film begins with Luchino Visconti’s “The Witch Burned Alive.” Mangano plays Gloria, a massively popular film actress who retreats from the set of her latest film to join old friend Valeria (Annie Girardot) at her isolated mountain house where she is having a tenth anniversary party for herself and her husband Paolo (Francisco Rabal). Gloria is exhausted and overworked, but her visit is hardly the relaxing break from her life she expected. Over the course of 24 hours, she is leered at, insulted, and coldly examined by the other party guests. Mangano is really put through the emotional wringer here, and made startlingly vulnerable when Gloria passes out and the party guests break down her elaborate makeup under the guise of helping her recover more quickly. It’s a very dark look at celebrity and how people relate to it, and a very effective standalone film.

The same cannot be said for Mauro Bolognini’s “Civic Duty,” in which Magnano plays a woman in a hurry to get somewhere who is stopped by a traffic accident and offers to take one of the drivers to the hospital. Elio (Alberto Sordi) is bleeding and delirious in her backseat as she tears across the city in what would be an impressive car chase if anyone was actually chasing them. It’s always fascinating and sort of terrifying watching Italian stunt drivers of the 60s and 70s, as they seem constantly inches away from sudden death as they repeatedly fling their tiny cars into danger. The short ends with a predictable punchline that feels somewhat anticlimactic, although the crazy ride itself is fun enough.

The comedic tone of “Civic Duty” works as a good introduction to the next segment, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s outrageously absurdist “The Earth Seen from the Moon.” Legendary Italian comedian Totò stars in one of his final film appearances as Ciancicato Miao, who as the film opens is mourning the death of his wife with his son Baciu (Ninetto Davoli). The father and son vow to find another woman to take her place and soothe their grief, and they eventually stumble upon Assurdina Caì (Mangano; her character’s first name is literally “Absurdity” in Italian), a green-haired woman who is deaf and mute. Ciancicato manages to propose to her through elaborate pantomime and soon enough the three are a happy family. Assurdina cleans up and transforms their sad little shack into a brightly colored space, but the run-down “palace” across the street from their shack beckons, leading Ciancicato to devise a plan for them to raise money to buy it. This is flat-out hilarious and bizarre, giving Mangano a showcase for comedic talents without ever speaking a word. It’s ridiculously cartoonish and vibrant, from Baciu’s giant red pompadour and “NEW YORK CITY” sweatshirt to a strange pair of tourists who wander in and out of the story in almost day-glo pink outfits and unwittingly push the story along. Despite all this, Pasolini ends the film with a characteristically bleak punchline.

Franco Rossi’s “The Sicilian Belle” is another very short segment like “Civic Duty.” Mangano plays Nunzia, a young woman who has been wronged by a man. Her father demands to know the name of the cad, and once he gets it he kicks off a chain reaction of near-slapstick revenge murders. It’s stylishly shot and humorously over-the-top, but it’s a lot of work in the service of a simple joke.

The final segment is Vittorio De Sica’s “An Evening Like Any Other,” which ends the film on a very high note indeed. Here Mangano plays bored housewife Giovanna, who is married to Carlo (Clint Eastwood), an American. One evening as he sits around reading the paper and complaining, Giovanna remembers their early courtship and fantasizes about how she would like to respond to his annoyances. The action of the evening in question is presented as a straightforward kitchen-sink drama as the two talk in their apartment, but Giovanna’s fantasies are elaborately staged sequences that draw influences from Italian fumetti (comics) and giallo (the same lurid novels that gave the mystery film subgenre its name) as well as American musicals. These sequences are shot with a completely different film texture, grainy and gauzy, heightening the sense of unreality. It’s a wild, funny, and touching film that like Visconti and Pasolini’s could easily stand on its own as a great example of its director’s talents.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray of The Witches presents the film in a beautiful new 2K restoration. It’s a bit light on special features in comparison to many of the company’s other releases, but it does include a highly informative commentary by Video Watchdog‘s Tim Lucas and the complete English-language dub of the film. The English version is not just dubbed but recut as well, running about seven minutes shorter than the original Italian version, and it has never been released on home video before now. The package includes reversible cover art with the original film poster on one side and new art by Graham Humphreys on the other, and the first printing includes an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Pasquale Iannone and Kat Ellinger. Hopefully now that this new edition is out, The Witches will gain the reputation it deserves as a top-notch showcase for the talents of Silvana Mangano and the directors who contributed to the film.

Arrow Academy released The Witches on Blu-ray 30 January 2018.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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