If there’s a messiness and an unwieldy hysterical realism to The Skin, based on the 1949 novel by Curzio Malaparte, it’s due to director Liliana Cavani’s interest in making a film that comprehensively addresses the sociological concerns of characters and nation simultaneously. Cavani is perhaps best known for stylishly exploring the dynamics between fascism and fetishism in The Night Porter, but The Skin largely dispenses with any aesthetic flair (the film is even shot, conspicuously, in Academy ratio despite having no immediate ties to television exhibition) to examine how personal, political, and psychological dependency forged during postwar years by American liberation forces persisted throughout the following 30-plus years. Although not made explicit, Cavani’s focus on both economic exploitation and sociological female imprisonment carry allegorical resonances that inform her decision to adapt Malaparte’s controversial novel decades later.
The film’s narrative is a complex interweaving of characters from varying national backgrounds and social classes, such that Cavani’s balancing of them often dips and slips with more interest in creating a sustained melodrama and narrative meaning within specific scenes rather than maintaining a consistent tonal timbre throughout. Cavani’s aims are best articulated along gender lines; in 1943, Italian General Malaparte (Marcello Mastroianni) shakes hands with Mark Clark (Burt Lancaster), a United States general whose presence in Naples, along with hundreds of soldiers, purportedly signals assistance to restoring Italy’s sovereignty. In actuality, the soldiers, anchored by unchecked freedoms to freely roam the streets and homes of locals, do little more than frequent displaced women whose only means of survival is to cheaply sell their bodies. Jimmy (Ken Marshall) is one of the few conflicted military men, whose relationship with Concetta (Liliana Tari) forms one of the film’s numerous subplots.
While Malaparte’s novel focused largely on the dynamics of American exploitation, Cavani’s film lends more time and focus to the women being exploited, constructing three disparate female characters, varyingly imprisoned by the demands of their given circumstances. Princess Consuelo (Claudia Cardinale) dines and accompanies Malaparte on his trips around the country, but is sexually autonomous from him, both throughout the film via sexual escapades and, in the dénouement, with a volcano erupting nearby, by having sex with an unnamed young man. Yet, she’s only afforded such sexual freedom, ultimately, once a natural disaster has broken the constraints marital order and fidelity. As something of the converse to Consuelo’s more stereotypically feminine beauty, Deborah Wyatt (Alexandra King), a colonel in the American Air Force, is quick-witted and verbally spares with Malaparte as she arrives in Naples. In a shocking scene late in the film, Wyatt is abducted and raped by a group of soldiers as the erupting volcano turns Naples into chaos. Cavani utilizes both womens’ bodies as contrasting figures of sexuality, but since each of them is ultimately defined by a sexual act (one of choice, one of resistance), each of their bodies comes to stand in microcosm for Italy’s symbolical body politic.
Cavani proves a most academic filmmaker in her endeavors to stringently infuse late-’70s feminism into an adaptation of Malaparte’s novel, but ever deft with the pacing, little of The Skin ever feels as if it’s simply pontificating or manipulating its narrative to fulfill such an agenda. In fact, Cavani’s intricate juxtapositioning of various female types, all compromised by larger militaristic forces, is very much the infrastructure for tragedy, such that the fate of Concetta (and Jimmy’s horrific fulfillment of it) is less feminist object lesson than inevitable outcome of a naïveté regarding just how undiscriminating capitalism is when it comes to marketable goods. As such, it’s difficult not to also understand Cavani’s film as a self-reflexive postulation of her own ill-treatment within the Italian film industry, where her own cinematic voice was being stifled and suppressed in much the same manner as the women within the film.
Indeed, The Skin was largely controversial and dismissed upon release for its deviations from Malaparte’s novel—itself a controversial work for its suggestion that an Italy freed from fascism still entailed subsequent self-shame for the nation’s dependency on foreign assets. Cavani reveals a deeply layered sadness regarding how willingly those in power choose to engage human exploitation, but her revisionisms don’t merely turn that anger into a platform for a revenge fantasy a la Inglourious Basterds. Instead, she invigorates history by suggesting that in order to dismantle the forces of nationalistic bravado, one must interrogate, identify and, above all, hear the voices of the oppressed, even if that means shirking traditionalist forces that plead for historical fidelity in the process.
Jean-Paul Sartre once said that "bananas have a better taste when they have just been picked. Works of the mind should likewise be eaten on the spot." The film is more than 30 years removed from its original release, and this new Blu-ray transfer from Cohen Media Group excellently and accurately reproduces Liliana Cavani’s original intentions. The image is sharp and clean, free of filmic defect and print scratches, though grain remains throughout. Cavani’s film is deliberately stripped-down and lacking visual flourish, but Cohen hasn’t allowed those aims to proffer a shoddy attention to colors, especially reds, when they appear amid the film’s mostly grayscale visual style. Sound is impressive and boisterous, not just in a remarkable sequence of a performative ritual known as "la figliata," but also in the film’s soundtrack, which features jazz music and Lalo Schifrin’s score alike. The dubbed dialogue track (concurrent with Cavani’s intentions) is clear and fluidly subtitled.
While not exhaustive, the four featurettes do an adequate job in providing an historical context for understanding precisely what Cavani was after with the film. The highlight is a 25-minute interview in which Cavani explains her conflicted relationship to the source material and how the film’s depiction of a sexual marketplace informed much of her overall interest. A few other brief interviews, including one with production designer Dante Feretti, are nice, if slight. The feature-length commentary with film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein is pleasant, if a bit underdeveloped, as they provide basic contextual information for the film’s production, while making squeamish asides about their distaste for the film’s more graphic content and giallo roots. Once they admit finding the film difficult to watch at times because of "the distracting dubbing," their subsequent insights become of only nominal interest. Rounding out the extras is a pair of trailers, one for the film’s original French release, and the other for the stateside 2014 re-release.
Don’t let the atrociously photoshopped Blu-ray cover fool you: Liliana Cavani’s The Skin is anything but a paint-by-numbers revisioning of the United States’s exploitation of Naples during post-WWII liberation efforts, and Cohen Media Group offers the film in a pristine transfer, with a commendable amount of historically minded extras.