If you're confused about why Italy continually undoes the soundness of the Euro, Elio Petri's PROPERTY IS NO LONGER A THEFT, a nihilistic anti-capitalist Brechtian satire from 1973, can surely clarify for you toute suite. Short answer: too many commies. They got a funny idea about money.
The plot hinges on the concept of identity theft as having the power to crash whole neural networks, as a neurotic bank teller Total (Flavio Bucci - the blind pianist in Suspiria) who becomes obsessed with stealing the signifiers of a rich, corrupt butcher's (Ugo Tognazzi) ID -his hat, knife, car, even mistress-- Total steals it all. Launching himself on an absurdist Harpo-cum-Karl Marxist freak-out, Total starts by quitting his bank teller job by daring to burn a lire note in his boss's office ("that's sacrilege!" the boss exclaims). Total justifies his crazy crime spree by not stealing any cash: "I'm a Mandrakian Marxist," he says "I only steal what I need." Daria Nicolodi is Anita, the butcher's mistress, who at first welcomes Total as a sexually intriguing diversion, then pins hope as a possible escape aid, but she's too smart to believe there's anywhere to run that wouldn't just be here. Salvo Randone plays Total's shell-shocked dad, who's in total denial of his son's proclivities (by refusing to believe his son's a thief, he's able to enjoy the caviar guilt-free).
|Rome: Open City - where a cop on duty outside the store laments|
he's in uniform, so can't loot any bread for himself - he has ethics
But why!? Why let Marx muddle their post-war reconstruction and keep them a wealth-redistribution obsessed economy nigh these 70 years? Stealing in time of necessity has long been a no-brainer to the Italians (i.e. the 'bread riots' of the 1940s - as seen in Rome: Open City for example - left ) and not feel a twinge of guilt. Italian and French pop culture long celebrates master thieves like Diabolik and crime--if done on an upward angle (rob from the richer)--was depicted as a kind financial vigilanteism (while even today if you visit to Rome people will tell you to keep your money and passport in a concealed money belt at all times). ). You might call that kind of behavior a lot of things: a kind of laissez-faire communism, for example --but it makes sense to not starve while rich people stuff themselves on sweets the other side of the shop window - the kind of thing one finds in Dickens and Griffith one doesn't find in Rome. Eventually, even the noble father in Bicycle Thief does it, after frittering away his remaining money on a meal (after passing up numerous free ones), and the wife spends the rest on a psychic to find out how long they'll be poor. Thus looting the bakery is both immoral and the highest kind of sanity for a people so locked into provincial pride and thinking due to Catholic guilt trips they can't see tomorrow for the nose on their face (i.e. the bakery won't open tomorrow or any day as they can't afford more flour due to not having any $$).
Property is No Longer a Theft is a child of that mindset, in more ways than one. It's on Blu-ray from Arrow, and looks and sounds great, but--if you don't believe in money and have a Prime subscription, you can pretend your stealing it as its streaming free. Just don't wonder if Arrow suddenly doesn't have any money for new restorations. It's your fault.
What drew me to it initially (aside from being enthralled by Petri's earlier masterpiece A Quiet Place in the Country) was a recommendation from horror film historian Tim Lucas who pointed out its near-giallo greatness, and indeed he's right - there may not be a crazed killer on the loose, but Total does threaten people with a knife; Ennio Morricone delivers one of his most surreal scores; Deep Red cinematographer Luigi Kuveller twists the frame with portentous shadows and expressionist angles (lots of doors within doors), and longtime Argento collaborator Daria Nicolodi (1) looms tall and ungainly sexy as Anita, the mistress --when she lets loose a deep throaty laugh during one of her Brechtian fourth wall addresses, you might get an instant chill as you recognize its masculine depths from so many Argento classics (it's the same laugh from Phenomena, when daring Jennifer Connelly to call her insects, or the mocking, snarling demoness at the climax of Suspiria). Since Bucci looks more than a little like Dario Argento himself (with a Dog-eared dash of a young Pacino) it would be easy to see this as a kind of deranged reflection of the Argento-Nicolodi collaborative canon (1), with the Butcher representing typical 'red telephone' Italian filmmaking at the time, and Argento like the mad genius who steers Daria free.
This all helps keep its odd mix of police corruption satire (the insurance-cops-rich-thief ring or wealth transference) from getting too mired in either didactic dissertation (In standard Brechtian practice, characters break the narrative flow to speak directly to the camera / audience) or Polanski-style young man-older-man-woman triangle power trip. Weird characters pop up to keep you guessing: the droop-eyed chief of detective (Orazio Orlando) who seems like he's either fishing for a bribe or trying to trap the butcher into a confession with a sense of conspiratorial camaraderie ("If you're not afraid of having it stolen," he notes, during the insurance tally, "you can't enjoy your wealth"); a cross-dressing master thief Albertone (Mario Scaccia) teaches Total the trade (and Total only taxes his weak, albeit big-as-all-outdoors queer heart with his irrational Ledger Joker-x-Harpo Marxist nonsense) and there's a dyke-ish fence played in a kind Lotte Lenya's Contessa Magda in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone-style resonant post-glam played by Cecillia Pollizi.
Not to mention Diabolik in a blink-and-miss cameo:
|Diabolik dies in a posion gas-filled car at a security expo in Property is No Longer a Theft|
By 1973, though, it's a bit didactic to go into such well-churned territory, but this darkened zone--where a girl can feel objectified but still enjoy the sex and get enough of her rocks off--does leave space for Nicolodi to--as Nero and Redgrave did for Quiet Place in the Country--quietly fill up her character with traits and moments that divulge themselves--Farber termite-style--subtly, on repeat viewing. Watcg her face for example after the butcher instructs her to cry over the 'stolen' items from Total's first robbery, when Pierelli is there helping calculate the total for the insurance (he actually stole way more than Total did, and hid the booty in a suitcase in the basement). Facing close to the camera in close-up we see her crying increase and decrease based on Pirelli's proximity; when it starts to grate on the butcher's nerves, she stops abruptly and cuts into a vague smile, barely able to reign in her delight at the thought of getting more expensive and useless stuff.
|The chamelonic sexual personae of Daria: with long black hair as passive mistress (PROPERTY 1973); as can-do, sexually assertive reporter (DEEP RED 1975)|
When you see these names in the credits, pounce!
Ultimately, the main problem with Theft is a not uncommon one for anti-establishment movies of the period, which get so busy critiquing the current system, and rebelling against it, that they run out of room to find an alternative meaning. Do communist intellectuals seriously think they'll ever weed the Stalin reality out of their Trotskyist idealism by attacking capitalism's status quo?
|Sellers takes aim at bourgeois values - The Magic Christian (1969)|
An example of this same problem can be found in 1969's The Magic Christian (above)--a satire of consumer culture not unlike Property-- which finds bored millionaire Peter Sellers and his nephew Ringo learning about the world through staging of some very elaborate (and presumably overpriced) 'freak outs' of standard bowler-and-brolly London-suburb train commuters. You can all but trace the thought lines of these little gags back to a time when access to free high-quality LSD woke artists up to the handrails and structure of society, so the sudden awareness of the absurdity of money and other social mores as aesthetic things in and of themselves are made absurd. When you're tripping the whole idea of money starts to become too abstract to handle: it's no longer 'invisible' as a symbol for goods and services but a pocketful of green portraits of old men in weird wigs. These strange knotty faces seem to be smiling and winking at you, struggling to move; en verso, the eye in the pyramid follows you around the room, pulling you in towards it like a tractor beam. The fact that 'normal' people don't notice these things is even funnier. "Living is easy with eyes closed" - so the tripper becomes interested in opening people's eyes to the world's absurdity, even if only for a few flash moments, like one of Jerry Garcia's onstage backflips: pranksters like Ken Kesey and his magic bus pulling over on some random small town main street to run amok for five minutes, then disappear - leaving the sleepy town to wonder if they were just a mass hallucination.
BUT all that stuff had a bad ending in the States - it spun out of control too fast - too many idiots taking too much too often, then clogging up the ER the minute they think they're dying (i.e. the 'only fools rush in' preliminary bad trip bardos); the logistics of the endless stream of runaway kids turning Golden Gate Park into a giant toilet. It was a revolution with nowhere to go.
|Take that, my little corrupt Italian capitalist system!|
Even so, some symbols - like 'stop' signs are better left heeded for their symbolic message rather than regarded purely as red octagons posing abstract contrast with the muddy crossroad behind them. you can topple the entire financial system if you're not careful; you can drift so far off the grid you can't get back. It's fine if you want to live your life that way, but you screw with the welfare of criminals and at your own risk, and you better take that risk seriously. Vanessa Redgrave isn't playing around.
(see also: Through a Dark Symbol).
|Pull the string!|
But the price of true post-structuralist realization--of stepping free of the bullshit-- is complete paralysis. Hemmings with the ghost tennis ball in his hand like a punter. Without real money, and real balls - the void stretches past even new life and new civilizations - it boldly goes where no man has gone before... but leaves you standing there, just a focal point for nada.
|One happy little family, pre-Total|
We also had our own problems: especially in early 70s. New York City was almost as bad as Rome - maybe worse (less pick-pocketing, more murders). Funny, but hardly surprising, that we took the opposite approach of Italy, who tended to idolize the crooks. For us, it was the reverse, we decided to invoke our second amendment rights and make a stand. So... Diabolik, Total, whatever your dumb names are, you and your commie prevert friends may run riot in Italy, but if you try to pull any of that shit in NYC, well, we gotta guy comin' knows just how to deal with punks like you.
|See you soon, pally!|
(Charles Bronson Death Wish - 1974)
|1. See 'Woman is the Father of Horror' - which I argue that a lot of the success of the great horror auteurs comes from their female writing/producing partners - i.e. Debra Hill, Daria Nicolodi, Gale Ann Hurd.|