The 1967 omnibus film The Witches was concocted by producer Dino De Laurentiis as a lavish, star-studded vehicle for his then-wife, actress Silvana Mangano, who features prominently in each of its five segments. What any of these episodes has to do with the quasi-folkloric figure of the witch remains mostly a matter of individual interpretation: The title likely shouldn’t be taken as anything other than metaphorical. What’s more, it mistakenly primes us to anticipate a certain kind of genre material, akin to the gothic chills of the Hammer horror film of the same name starring Joan Fontaine. Instead, The Witches offers a quintet of artfully contrived stories that examine the role of the feminine in modern society, each very different in tone and content.
The film is uneven in terms of both episode length and quality. Mauro Bolognini’s Civic Sense is an attenuated comic sketch in which a middle-class motorist (Mangano) solicitously comes to the aid of a truck driver (Alberto Sordi) injured in a traffic accident (her callous motivation for doing so is only revealed in the segment’s downbeat punchline). Even slighter, The Sicilian Belle parodies provincial mores, as well as commedia all’italiana gems like Pietro Germi’s scathing Seduced and Abandoned, in an ultraviolent tale of revenge that’s prompted by—you guessed it—seduction and abandonment.
Luchino Visconti’s The Witch Burned Alive opens the film with a suitably self-reflexive take on the perils of international superstardom. The auto-da-fé suggested by the title refers to the literal and figurative deconstruction of renowned actress Gloria (Mangano) when she decides to pay an unannounced visit to the Austrian chalet owned by her oldest friend, Valeria (Annie Girardot). The other guests cajole Gloria into performing a sexy dance routine, favorably compare her to industrial goods like canned meat, and generally set their sights on her in one way or another: The men are all on the make, married or no, and the women delight in stripping Gloria of her various beauty aids (wig, false eyelashes, etc.) when she swoons from overexertion.
As with Visconti’s The Leopard, one of the key scenes is illuminated entirely by firelight. The hearthside chat in The Leopard allows Prince Fabrizio to burrow down to the core of his longing for oblivion. Here the decadent game of erotic tag between Gloria, Valeria’s husband (Francisco Rabal), and another guest (Massimo Girotti) crystalizes for Gloria the impossibility of finding further gratification in the act of infidelity. Because she’s pregnant, Gloria turns inward, attempting to find purpose and happiness in the existence of the child. But those hopes are dashed in an excoriating long-distance phone call with her producer husband. (In a nod to Mangano’s real-life experiences, the photo clearly visible on the nightstand shows De Laurentiis.) All that’s left for Gloria is to reconstruct the false idol of her celebrity.
Pasolini’s first color film, The Earth as Seen from the Moon plays like a companion piece to The Hawks and the Sparrows: Both works pair veteran comic actor Totò with fresh-faced Ninetto Davoli, feature the music of Ennio Morricone, and find aptly oblique angles from which to critique Marxist ideas of class warfare. As its title implies, this segment is essentially a fable from outer space, grotesque in approach and garishly hued by design, a takedown of upward mobility at any cost. The characters are stock types drawn from a demented harlequinade: Mangano plays green-haired deaf-mute Absurda, Totò is outfitted like Larry Fine playing sad clown Emmett Kelly, and Davoli looks like Howdy Doody gone preppy. The Beckettian circularity of their antics only reinforces Pasolini’s mordant moral: “Life and death are the same thing.”
Vittorio De Sica explores the fantasy life of the average Italian housewife in the trenchant, if somewhat anticlimactic, “An Evening Like the Others.” Then again, the inevitable sense of letdown this episode engenders just might be deliberate, as the title suggests, but one can’t help but think that if this segment were switched with Visconti’s, Gloria’s almost ritualistic act of valediction would be a more effective finale for the film as a whole. But it isn’t hard to see why they saved this one for last: It co-stars the film’s biggest box-office draw, Clint Eastwood (at the tail end of his collaborations with spaghetti-western auteur Sergio Leone), as Mangano’s white-collar husband-cum-source of perpetual frustration. Unlike the other segments, this one was clearly filmed in English, and works far better when viewed that way, thereby playing up the American abroad, fish-out-of-water aspect of the storyline.
The Witches serves as an excellent showcase for the versatile skills of DP Giuseppe Rotunno, who shot all five episodes. Rotunno displays impressive range as he moves from the lambent lighting schemes of Luchino Visconti’s segment to the brash primary colors of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s with equal aplomb. Civic Sense deploys a lot of hectic handheld camerawork, and The Sicilian Belle is dominated by solemn blacks and earthy browns. Vittorio De Sica’s segment uses diffuse lighting and a slightly out-of-focus image to differentiate between Giovanna’s imaginings and her humdrum reality. Arrow’s 2K restoration of the film reveals more in the way of fine details, and boasts deeper blacks and a bolder color palette, compared to the earlier DVD from MGM. It’s also free from practically all the blemishes that were displayed in that transfer, save for a stray hair or two caught in the gate.
Piero Piccioni scored four of the film’s episodes, providing a jaunty, jazzy title theme that runs through the opening animated credits and all of Visconti’s story. Also of note is his unusual rendition of the pop song "I Will Follow Him" arranged for male chorus. Ennio Morricone scored Pasolini’s vignette, leaning heavily on folk tunes and discordant harmonica (eerily reminiscent of the one played by Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West). The PCM mono mixes (in Italian or English) do fine by the dialogue, which can be subtitled in either version, but really excel in putting across the distinctive soundtrack.
In another thoroughly researched commentary track, film critic and novelist Tim Lucas conveys a wealth of information about the history of the anthology film in Italy, as well as the variously intersecting work histories of The Witches’s cast and crew. He offers a nuanced reading of the film’s variegated themes and visual stratagems. Where the MGM DVD contained an alternate version of De Sica’s episode, with Clint Eastwood and Silvana Mangano delivering their lines in English, Arrow includes the entire English-language version of the film. Complete with inserts and intertitles written in English, this version runs about seven minutes shorter than the Italian: The majority of the cuts have been made to Pasolini’s segment, which is sort of ironic, since some critics consider it the best of the bunch. There’s also an amusing difference in the dubbing of the De Sica episode: When Eastwood jadedly intones a litany of film titles, many of them are De Laurentiis productions, including the Eastwood vehicle A Fistful of Dollars. Finally, and only available for the first pressing, there’s a booklet that contains two excellent essays: Pasquale Iannone on the history of the omnibus film, and Kat Ellinger on desire and the female perspective in The Witches.
Though it completely eschews the aura of malevolence conjured up by its title, The Witches still manages to cast a spell at times, owing to the contributions of its talented cast and crew.