Italian Cultural Institute, London, 24-26 May 2012
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B is for B-movie, and ‘basterds’, of course – the ‘Inglourious’ kind. B is also for ‘balletic violence’ and ‘bodies launched from trampolines to a symphony of explosions’ – both specialities of Enzo G. Castellari, who, together with Sergio Martino, was honoured at this year’s Cine-Excess festival. The focus was firmly on the Italian cinema of the ’70s, the so-called ‘years with lead’, a decade bracketed by terrorist bombings in Bologna and Milan.
Professor Mary Wood and organiser Xavier Mendik tried to untangle the enduring appeal of what Wood dubbed “… the bad movies that we love. It’s not about nostalgia, it’s about nausea”, he said, linking the films’ often shocking violence to the everyday fear that was experienced in 1970s Italy, when public spaces carried the threat of kidnapping, car-jacking, or even murder. Parallels could be drawn with post-war film noir, the ‘termite art’ that Manny Farber squared off against the ‘white elephant art’ of the major studios. Yet, Italian B-movies are far less renowned than their Hollywood counterparts. Often dismissed as formulaic and derivative, if not outright rip-offs, the best are outrageously inventive genre cross-overs that easily outstrip their models.
Still the consummate showman, Castellari took to the stage to introduce a screening of The Bronx Warriors, confessing that he found the film a little boring now. Inevitably, the fug of Tarantino hung heavily in the air, with the enfant terrible director’s last picture (almost) titled after Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards and his next one being a riff on ‘Django’, originally played by frequent collaborator Franco Nero.
In a B-movie, stars can be on the way up or the way down, but it’s the character actors who really matter. 1982’s The Bronx Warriors is a perfect example: the beefcake lead had been discovered in the neighbourhood gym, and acted accordingly. Thankfully, cult stalwarts George Eastman and Fred Williamson were on hand to prop up the action, while Vic Morrow, in his penultimate role, wrung every last drop from the script with beleaguered dignity.
The dapper Martino was the more unassuming of the two directors. In conversation with Kim Newman, talk turned to the unlikely influence of Martino’s 1979 adventure Isle of the Fishmen on contemporary cinema. When Newman admitted a soft spot for this fantasy pot-boiler, Martino rejoined that Matteo Garrone, the director of Gamorrah, had also been under its spell, watching it daily during one childhood holiday.
Martino was represented on screen by All The Colours of the Dark, a riveting horror with shades of Polanski in its claustrophobic London setting. The film’s star, Edwige Fenech, was announced as potential guest of honour next year – a Euro-cult icon, whose screen credits in commedia all’Italiana and cine-erotica act as a reminder that the spaghetti westerns, poliziotteschi and gialli celebrated this year are only the tip of the Italian exploitation iceberg.

— FRANCIS LAMB

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