Leonardo Ferri can’t paint. He’s the toast of the town thanks to his abstract paintings, which fetch incredible prices. He dates the beautiful Flavia, his manager. A collector loans him a luxurious villa in the countryside to work. Life should be easy for Leonardo, but he’s going through a creative crisis and having violent nightmares. He gets worse when, after driving aimlessly through the countryside, he discovers an abandoned villa for sale and becomes obsessed with a young countess who died there during World War II. If he already showed signs of mental instability from the start, his investigation into her mysterious death finally erases the last vestiges of sanity.
Cinema has long loved to explore the relationships between art, creativity and madness. A Quiet Place in the Country was released before Black Swan, The Shining, Robert Altman’s Images, and on the same year as Ingmar Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf, with which it shares a few similarities: distraught painter living in isolation is haunted by things which may or may not be figments of his imagination. Although Bergman’s remarkable incursion into horror has achieved a degree of fame, Elio Petri’s movie remains undeservedly obscure; the fact that it so perfectly embodies the formula many of the abovementioned movies still cling to, should make it essential watching for fans of movies about artists going murderously crazy.
The first thing one notices is Ennio Morricone’s dissonant, deliberately ugly score for the movie. It’s loud, clangourous, distorted, and interspersed with metallic noises. It’s music meant to disturb and irritate. It gnaws at ones’ nerves, predating the score John Williams composed for Images in collaboration with Stomu Yamashta, whose random weird sound effects disrupt the traditional harmony of Williams’ compositions. In fact the whole movie is cacophonous from start to finish. The first act in Milan is thundering with urban noises: the indistinct humming of people, the ringing of telephones, the screeching of tires. Ironically, when the action moves to the countryside, it remains equally noisy: the omnipresent chirping of birds and droning of critters simply replace man-made sounds. In spite of the title, there’s nothing quiet about the movie, whose frenzied sound wonderfully reflects Leonardo’s mental turmoil.
The dilemma about Leonardo’s mental state is that we can never tell whether he’s imagining things or whether a ghost is really manipulating him. He’s in almost every frame of the movie, meaning the information we get is mediated by his perception. But the way he sees reality is fragmentary, blending the past and present, hallucinations and memories; he imagines fascist soldiers storming the gardens of the villa as he gazes out of a window. Ambiguity builds up until not even the viewer is capable of distinguishing fantasy and reality. It’s not unlike the way Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining slowly becomes part of the hotel’s history.
Franco Nero shines in his difficult role and portrays Leonardo’s insanity always on the edge of exploding into violence. His feverish, paranoid look greatly enhances the mood and grounds the disparate plot around him. For as much as this movie owes to the absurd and the irrational, it’s never a deeply alienating experience thanks to Nero’s charisma.
Elio Petri, better known for the Oscar-winning political parable Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, had a dynamic career. He arguably directed the first movie to talk about the Mafia, We Still Kill The Old Way; he directed Marcello Mastroianni in science fiction and crime movies; he tackled labour rights in The Working Class Goes to Heaven, and his political satire Todo Modo predicted the assassination of Italian prime-minister Aldo Moro. For this psychological horror movie he rounded up an excellent cast and crew: Nero, already a star thanks to the Django movies, an up-and-coming Vanessa Redgrave, the legendary screenwriter Tonino Guerra (co-author of many movies with Antonioni, Fellini and Tarkovsky), and the underrated cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller, who lent his talent to Dario Argento’s Deep Red. Knowing the names associated with this movie helps explain why it’s such a fascinating work of cinema: the strong colours are the mark of Kuveiller, who saturated the frame like few cinematographers. And the strangeness of the story owes a lot to Guerra’s favourite themes of memory and perception (could we expect less from the screenwriter of Blowup?). That this movie is unique isn’t remarkable; that some of the finest filmmakers of their era got together to make it is what’s so amazing.
A Quiet Place in the Country is a great ‘60s movie. It drips with sensuality and coolness. Like Blowup, it defines a time and a place. Pop art is much on display throughout the movie, and American pop artist Jim Dine contributed created the paintings used in the finale. Probably shocking for its time because of the sex and violence, it’s aged into a very respectable piece of weird cinema that fans of cult movies will want to add to their collection.
Director: Elio Petri
Screenwriters: Elio Petri, Tonino Guerra, Luciano Vincenzoni
Cast: Franco Nero, Vanessa Redgrave, Georges Géret, Gabriella Grimaldi
Runtime: 106 min
Country Italy, France