Synopsis: One of the most controversial Italians films of the 80s, Devil in The Flesh takes Raymond Radiguet’s classic novel and updates it to modern times. Dealing with the legacy of Italy’s leaden years and the aftermath of the social struggles headed by the extreme left wing revolutionary groups, Devil in The Flesh caused a critical uproar upon it’s release due to its highly-charged political and sexually frank subject matter. Marushka Detmers (The Mambo Kings) stars as Giulia, a young woman engaged to marry Giacomo, her fiancÃ©e who’s sitting behind bars because of his political activity. Restless in her appetites and inner turmoil, she meets a young student named Andrea and a passionate affair quickly ensues. But when the day arrives in which she has to face whether she wants to share her life with Giacomo or not, Giulia takes a surprising decision…
Boldly directed by Marco Bellocchio (Good Morning, Night) and featuring superb cinematography by Giuseppe Lanci, Devil in The Flesh is a powerfully erotic film that deserves to be discovered and appreciated without preconceptions. With it’s mixing of political and sexual issues, Bellocchio retains the strength and relevancy of the classic text and makes a strong contemporary statement in favor of absolute artistic and political freedom. As controversial as films get, Devil in The Flesh remains one of the most important Italian films of our time.
Diavolo in corpo 8.0
eyelights: Maruschka Detmer. the sexy scenes. the political undercurrent. the equally gorgeous and dissonant score.
eyesores: the unsexy mental illness subplot.
‘Diavolo in corpo’ is a 1986 Italian erotic drama set during the Years of Lead, the 15-year period during which Italy was under constant threat by home-grown terrorism. The story focuses on the love affair between Andrea, a high school student, and Giulia, the young fiancé of a man on trial for participating in terrorist activities.
I was first introduced to it by a friend who had an eye for art house cinema with a touch of eroticism. We used to lend each other various films of all genres. He lent me his copy of ‘Diavolo in corpo’ one day. If not for him, I probably never would have heard of it; I’ve only seen it one other time (and I know I would have ignored it based on the DVD artwork).
The problem with ‘Diavolo in corpo’ is that it’s overshadowed by its sexual content: the film is consistently marketed as exploitation pap and is sought out purely as a blue movie. And yet it’s far too loaded to be merely tossed in with the Emmanuelles of this world: between the political undertones and the strong character development, it’s more than that.
It is, however, a very sexy motion picture indeed.
To start with, there’s Detmer herself, who is unbelievably beautiful and frequently fully naked. Then there is Giulia and Andrea’s lovemaking, which is a mixture of playfulness and passion of the sort new lovers partake in. Although Federico Pitzalis is uni-dimensional in those sequences, Detmer really covers a wide range of emotions.
‘Diavolo in corpo’ is frequently referred to for its one explicit sex scene, a controversial one in which Giulia goes down on Andrea – actually taking his member in her mouth. Casually, playfully. It’s probably one of the hottest fellatio scenes I’ve seen on film, and it’s usually my least favourite act (I much prefer seeing cunnilingus, truth be told).
It’s a question of context, though: if the film hadn’t built up to that moment, it would have felt gratuitous. And, watched on its own, it’s meaningless. The act is a part and parcel with the growing complicity between the two lovers: Andrea is telling her a bedtime story and, as she listens and laughs along, she gradually begins to undo his pants.
This is why I think that ‘Diavolo in corpo’ extends beyond the blue movie genre: because it creates a dynamic between the characters and delves into their motivations and psychology. It isn’t just meant to titillate us, bereft of emotional and intellectual substance. In fact, it’s this very substance that informs the sex acts and make them so H-O-T.
I understand why it was controversial and why it is being talked about (I know I’m not helping matters at all): Detmer is a legitimate actress, not some failed model who is making blue movies to survive. Such explicitness is rare enough, but it’s always much more shocking when a real actor does it (ex: the hoopla over such a simple scene as the interrogation in ‘Basic Instinct‘).
The fact is that Detmer is a fabulous actress. Although her co-star Federico Pitzalis was nominated as Best New Actor in Italy, she steals the show completely. Her ability to bridge a wide range of emotions effortlessly and in a completely natural manner is awe-inspiring. One moment, she is carefree, playful, and then she can be distracted, troubled.
The first time we encounter Giulia is when a harrowed woman is wandering about the roofs that join Andrea’s school and Giulia’s home and she comes out to see what is happening. She is so troubled by the sight of this mad woman that she is in tears, visibly shaken. The sight of her snaps the other woman back to reality, suddenly childlike. The exchange between the two is gold.
We would eventually discover that Giulia is burdened by her own mental fragility, which is likely why she was so moved seeing the other woman. Andrea’s father, who is a psychotherapist, has treated Giulia in the past and warns Andrea that she is unstable. As she becomes more torn between her love for Andrea and for her fiancé, this instability comes to the fore.
It doesn’t help that she is under pressure from her mother-in-law, who knows she is having an affair but is trying to maintain appearances so that her son will have a reason to fight in court. But when Giulia begins to believe that Andrea is bored with her, her self-assurance finally shatters and she teeters closer and closer to the edge.
‘Diavolo in corpo’ thankfully doesn’t delve into tragedy (unlike, say, ‘Fatal Attraction’). If anything, it leaves us with ambiguity. What will happen to Giulia? What about Andrea? We don’t know. All we know for sure is that Giulia is at her most fragile state and we can’t help but empathize; she is a wounded bird that doesn’t know how to mend itself.
But all of this would be for naught if Detmer wasn’t so devastating, both as a performer and as a woman. If she hadn’t been able to embody Giulia’s infectious energy, her lovely laugh, her freshness, we wouldn’t be entranced as we are with her. And, by the film’s end, when she silently unravels, it wouldn’t be nearly as heartbreaking to watch.
Although I had found the tone a little unusual the first time around (how does one mix sex, politics and mental illness together with ease?), I was quite taken with ‘Diavolo in corpo’ this time around. I’m surprised that it’s been relegated to obscurity: not only is it devilishly sexy, but it’s a terrific motion picture all around.
Nota bene: The original DVD features a documentary that provides historical background on the political situation in Italy at the time. It’s been years since I”ve seen it (I was never able to find an original copy of this DVD for purchase), but it was a very good primer into the tensions that held the the country on edge for years. It’s worth watching.
Date of viewing: July 2, 2014