Il cartaio

Synopsis: Director Dario Argento (Tenebre, Inferno) returns to classic form with his vicious thriller about a serial killer who taunts police with online video poker. But for every round the cops lose, a kidnapped young girl is mutilated live via web cam. Now an Italian detective (Stefania Rocca of The Talented Mr. Ripley) and an Irish forensics expert (Liam Cunningham of Dog Soldiers) must race against time to trap a maniac. From computer screens to crime scenes, the games have begun. The stakes are murder. And the hunt is on for the psychopath known only as The Card Player.
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Il cartaio 6.5

eyelights: the utterly chilling premise.
eyesores: the sloppy script. the awkward performances.

From what I was able to gather in the ever-faithful interwebs, ‘Il cartaio’ was originally conceived as a sequel to ‘La syndrome di Stendhal‘. Apparently, this changed when Asia Argento was unable to return to the role due to other scheduling commitments – hence why the character’s name morphed from Anna Manni to Ann Mari.

In the DVD special features, however, Argento suggests that he had been developing the idea for a couple of years, and was trying to avoid making a sequel or a trilogy – something he’d done in the past. It’s quite a peculiar thing to say given the obvious similarities between the characters’ names and chosen careers.

Of course, these are the only parallels between the two films. As played by Stefania Rocca, Anna is a very different personage: she is older, certainly more stable, and she isn’t exhibiting any effects of the Stendhal Syndrome (the twisted developments of film and the condition). Furthermore, none of her colleagues or home life appear similar.

In my humble opinion, Asia Argento would have been better in the role because Stefania Rocco was so brittle that I couldn’t believe it one bit when she was supposed to be taking matters in her own hand or being remotely physical (What? She can run with those twigs she calls legs? I do not believe my eyes!). At least Argento would have had the attitude to compensate for her own physical limitations.

The worst of it is that Rocco and many of the other cast members didn’t exactly offer stellar performances. To be fair, however, I suspect that the problem is that most of the actors were not acting in their native tongue, which means that they expressed themselves in a caricatured version of English. The English accent was generally good, or at least undecipherable, but I got the impression that they were not at home with it and, thus, were not acting naturally (watching Rocco speak Italian in the DVD’s special features reinforced this notion).

Further complicating things is that the dialogue was rote, the interpersonal relationships were contrived/clichéd, and there were huge gaps in the storytelling, as if small bits were excised here and there, essentially disrupting the flow (ex: in one scene they’re in one place and in the next they’re somewhere altogether different, with no explanation as to what’s happened in between). Basically, it looks like the screenplay was loosely put together – no matter how much research Argento claims to have done.

It should be noted, mind you, that his year-long research focused mostly on gambling, especially online poker – and he put those sequences together admirably well. In fact, watching the poker games was probably the best part of the picture – and I loathe playing poker, let alone gambling. It was a bit intense. It was especially disconcerting because we were forced to see the kidnap victim the whole time, staring at the camera. Yikes.

All the while, though, I couldn’t help but wonder why the victims screamed incessantly. Didn’t they get winded or hoarse? And why would the police keep the audio on? If only for psychological reasons or peace of mind, I would have put the computer on mute – if not even mask the video portion, so that their card player could focus on playing against the killer without being racked with guilt. That seems a little off to me.

But a lot of the picture was off.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

– at one point, one of the victims actually undoes her bonds, allowing her to escape her tormentor. However, she wastes a bunch of time trying to remove her gag instead of simply running away or even sneak-attacking the killer. How bloody stupid. I doubt that anyone, in a similar situation, would do this.- Remo, the poker whiz that the police hire to play against the killer, is eventually lured to his doom. It was total BS. Given the danger he had faced thus far, why would he actually allow himself to get sucked into such a vulnerable position? Alarm bells should have rung.

But, to make matters worse, the staging is farcical: here he is on the roof, wondering what’s going to happen next, and then a noose pulls him off the roof and into the water below without any harm coming to him. He never chokes in the water, either – not even as he is dragged along by the boat. Sheesh.

Then the boat actually sneaks up on him while he’s treading water and he is impaled with a hook. Give me a !@#$ break!

– John Brennan’s death should never have taken place. For starters, the moment that he found the killer’s lair, he should have called for back-up. Seems natural. Simple. But, to start off with, he couldn’t have found the place this easily: the clues that lead him there were seeds that he found in the victims’ nose and ear. How did they get there? It was impossible unless they were planted there – which, one can easily see, was not bloody likely.

– On a similar topic, why would the killer be so careless as to have seeds all over his clothes? This gave him away, but it was so needless, given that they were covering him like bird poop – it was so obvious that it hurt the eyes and he should have noticed it and cleaned up. But maybe he’s just crazy, and he enjoyed being covered in seeds. After all, we don’t even know his motive; we don’t know why he’s doing this and how he got away with it given his line of work. Weird.

– The closing sequence with Anna and the killer is a joke for a number of reasons: Firstly, for someone who had stacked the deck against his opponents throughout, it’s ridiculous that he would put himself in danger by tieing himself to the train tracks with Anna. Secondly, playing the poker game together on the computer defeats the purpose of playing it online. It may have seemed like a good idea to tie the ending with the rest of the film, but the reality is that with both players are playing on the same laptop it invariably means that they can see each other’s cards. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Even tonally, ‘Il cartaio’ was wonky. For instance there were some peculiar bits of comedy injected here and there, like have a corpse spitting water at a police officer (which may happen when it’s just been fished out of a river, I suppose – but it was overdone and out of place), and having a dancing and opera-singing morgue technician – something which would have felt at home in a David Lynch picture, but not so much here. Perhaps Argento was trying to bring new flavours to his filmmaking. Too bad that it didn’t work.

Similarly, he asked Claudio Simonetti to do a techno score instead of his more traditional synth and guitar-based accompaniments. The end result is okay, but the techno sounded cheap and it dates the film something fierce. In fact, it dated it to 1994 – ten years prior to the making of the picture! On the DVD’s special features, Simonetti states that it’s probably his best work so far. Hmmm… I’m not so sure of that myself. This is, after all, one of the men behind Argento’s most memorable scores: ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Tenebrae’.

The quality of the music may very well be a budgetary issue. At least, I imagine that they had limited resources and that this might have affected the end product – after all, the picture itself looks like a crummy straight-to-video or cable-TV production instead of looking like a film proper. Since I haven’t been schooled in the technical aspects of cinema, I don’t know what it takes to accomplish that. Whatever it is, though, Argento completely managed to make ‘Il cartaio’ look like it was ready-made for TV.

And yet, ‘Il cartaio’ partially succeeds because it is built around a truly chilling idea – the idea that people could be kidnapped and that their lives would be gambled away, with an unpredictable mixture of luck and skill being the only thing that can save them. Furthermore, having to watch powerlessly as the killer did his business is probably what made the film as creepy as it was.

In fact, the tension that was built around these kidnappings and poker games was the key strength of the picture, and it offset enough of the film’s weakenesses to warrant another viewing. Is it enough to make ‘Il cartaio’ appealing to most audiences? I wouldn’t bet on it. But Argento fans with an open mind might find something in it.

Date of viewing: November 5, 2012

One response to “Il cartaio

  1. Pingback: Tenebrae | thecriticaleye·

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