Gran Bollito | Blu-ray Review

Gran Bollito Mauro Bolognini

Gran Bollito Mauro BologniniArguably one of the most neglected auteurs who has undeservedly fallen into obscurity is Mauro Bolognini, a director who worked throughout the 1950s and 60s directing features written by Pasolini before collaborating on a series of anthology features and then embarking on a series of offbeat and unique film efforts throughout the 1970s and 80s. At the top of these is his 1977 Gran Bollito (aka Black Journal) a Grand Guignol styled re-imagining of the infamous serial killer Leonarda Cianciulli, better known as the “Soap-Maker of Correggio.” Throw in a game Shelley Winters as said serial killer and a host of male actors playing her female victims (including Max Von Sydow), and one can overlook the flagrant melodrama (and dubbing) to enjoy a juicy horror film as strange as it is unsettling.

Lea (Winters) has had a difficult life. A working class woman from southern Italy who had to sell lottery tickets for subsistence, she is at last able to join her husband Rosario (Mario Scaccia) in the north, where he has secured them an apartment in a condominium. Displeased with her new abode, fate renders Rosario bedridden from a stroke, leaving the older woman to her own devices, which includes fawning over their only child Michele (Antonio Marsina) a strapping young lad who humors his mother’s frequent and aggressive bouts of affection. He’s their only surviving child after thirteen odd child deaths, so her interests seem somewhat warranted. But when Michele begins dating Sandra (Laura Antonelli), Lea begins to unravel, leading her to begin murdering her fellow neighbor ladies, beginning with Berta (Alberto Lionello), who has won the lottery and plans on joining her husband in America. Instead, Lea drains her blood to use for cooking and boils her flesh into a vat of soap which she sells in the neighborhood. But as more bodies begin to disappear, authorities become suspicious, while Lea’s behavior grows even more erratic when Michele is drafted for military service.Lea (Winters) has had a difficult life. A working class woman from southern Italy who had to sell lottery tickets for subsistence, she is at last able to join her husband Rosario (Mario Scaccia) in the north, where he has secured them an apartment in a condominium. Displeased with her new abode, fate renders Rosario bedridden from a stroke, leaving the older woman to her own devices, which includes fawning over their only child Michele (Antonio Marsina) a strapping young lad who humors his mother’s frequent and aggressive bouts of affection. He’s their only surviving child after thirteen odd child deaths, so her interests seem somewhat warranted. But when Michele begins dating Sandra (Laura Antonelli), Lea begins to unravel, leading her to begin murdering her fellow neighbor ladies, beginning with Berta (Alberto Lionello), who has won the lottery and plans on joining her husband in America. Instead, Lea drains her blood to use for cooking and boils her flesh into a vat of soap which she sells in the neighborhood. But as more bodies begin to disappear, authorities become suspicious, while Lea’s behavior grows even more erratic when Michele is drafted for military service.

For a filmmaker with as prolific a filmography as Mauro Bolognini, it’s remarkable he isn’t better known, especially as his shock oddity weirdness hovers somewhere in the less outrageous vicinity of a Marco Ferreri. He competed in Cannes on five separate occasions across a span of twenty years, the last time with 1976’s The Inheritance, which starred Anthony Quinn, Fabio Testi, and Dominique Sanda. So it’s with some surprise to note his next feature was this ungainly international co-production, which plays like some sideshow perversion of filmmaking, to behold it without warning feels akin to stepping on a two-headed snake in the grass.

The tone is somewhat of a dark satire, and Gran Bollito plays like a Pasolini remake of an Almodovar film. Shelley Winters, already well over a decade into a horror hag period, (thanks to the Curtis Harrington titles which started off the decade, What’s the Matter with Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo), is a sublime serial killing harridan in Gran Bollito. Her usually shrill register is dubbed over in Italian, which lends this a sort of surreal intensity it may not have achieved in English. While she has an incredibly creepy fascination with her only surviving son, (which includes bathing him lasciviously in the nude and interrupting him mid-coitus with his girlfriend in his school dormitory), what she does with her poor maid (an impish Milena Vukotic) is even more unpleasant, dangling the poor naked girl in front of her son as a sexual sacrifice to keep him in the house.

Winters has plenty of choice moments, bonding with the other female tenants (most of them played by men who double as other characters in the film) by explaining her tragic backstory as a poor Italian woman. “After all those abortions, I’ve become another woman too,” she proclaims casually in response to the other old biddies who whisper various titillations concerning late life temptations. Later, before she devises her little kitchen contraption for draining blood, she lovingly caresses the sweaty entrails of a dead animal as an anatomy less for the maid, explaining the best way to cook offal in the same way others describe lovemaking.

Lurid and grotesque, the frequent appearance of Max Von Sydow as the sexually repressed neighbor Lisa Carpi is a touch of genius, looking like Alec Guinness dressed up as Vanessa Redgrave, his spindly frame and blonde helmet of hair towering over the often glowering Winters. As other gender dysmorphic characters, Renato Pozzetto and Alberto Lionello add to the mayhem, all of whom somehow manage to look less garish than notable British actress Rita Tushingham, who is the first unlucky person to discover Lea’s proclivities when she finds out the secret ingredient in the soap.

Disc Review:

Twilight Time releases Bolognini’s obscure title in 1.85:1, which arrives with impressively clear quality, Armando Nannuzzi’s soft-lensed frames resembling a gentle melodrama before the blood starts to spurt. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sounds good despite the dubbed Italian from the film’s original post-production. Like the label’s previous releases, this is a limited edition release of 3,000 units, but there is no isolated score track (Enzo Jannacci served as composer) this time around. A compelling audio commentary track from film historians Derek Botelho and David Del Valle is also worth checking out for those interested in behind-the-scenes info on the actual story and production of the film.

Final Thoughts:

Like a female version of 10 Rillington Place, Bolognini’s perverse Gran Bollito is an oddity ready for rediscovery, while fans of Shelley Winters should revel in one of her essential later period performances.

Film: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Nicholas Bell is a Los Angeles based film critic/journalist for IONCINEMA.com, covering film festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, TIFF, AFI, as well as weekly film reviews. Nicholas is also a regular contributor to men's fashion periodical, MM Magazine. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (All About My Mother), Coen Bros. (No Country For Old Men), Dardenne Bros. (The Kid With a Bike), Haneke (The Piano Teacher), Hsiao-Hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon), Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love), Kiarostami (Close-Up), Lynch (Blue Velvet), Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho), von Trier (Dogville), Zulawski (Possession), Carax (Mauvais Sang)