Mauro Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, 1967
Starring: Silvana Mangano, Totò, Ninetto Davoli, Clint Eastwood, Alberto Sordi, Massimo Girotti
After Ro.Go.Pa.G. and the controversy surrounding Pasolini’s heretic short film, “La ricotta,” he dove back anthology films a few years later with The Witches. The beautiful Silvana Mangano, wife of producer Dino de Laurentiis who organized the anthology, stars in each of the film’s five segments. I feel like I should warn you now that there aren’t actually any witches in the film (much to my great disappointment). Like Ro.Go.Pa.G., the different segments were helmed by well-known directors, including Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, Pasolini, Mauro Bolognini, and Vittorio De Sica. Surprisingly, the shorts vary considerably in length, which means that the film moves at a decent clip at never feels sluggish, as is sometimes the case with anthology films trying to make each segment equal to its fellows.
Luchino Visconti’s The Witch Burnt Alive
This lengthy first short stars Mangano as a famous actress who takes a day off from her busy shooting and publicity schedule to travel to an old friend’s wintertime resort. Her friend is throwing a party for a wealthy, middle aged group and the actress is somewhat ostracized. Obsessed with her elaborate beauty routine and the paparazzi waiting outside, the actress is bordering on hysteria. The women are jealous and judgmental of her, while most of the men want to have sex with her. Ultimately she faints and falls ill and it is revealed she is pregnant. She sulks off after a fight over the telephone with her controlling husband.
This film has a lot of potential and an unnerving tone, but doesn’t quite get off the ground. I think it actually would have been more enjoyable as a feature-length work. It is unclear if the actress is just vain and selfish, or if she is really fragile, overworked, and at the breaking point. Visconti suggests the women’s predatory nature — they remove the actress’s hat, wig, false eyelashes, and some of her makeup when she passes out — and the actress almost has an affair with her friend’s husband, but these scenes don’t go to the extremes that they perhaps should. Mangano would go on to better work with Visconti in films like Death in Venice and Conversation Piece. Keep your eyes peeled for a naughty cameo from a very young Helmut Berger.
Mauro Bolognini’s Civic Sense
In this quick short, Mangano plays a rushed woman held up in traffic because of an accident. The driver of a truck has been injured, but she offers to take him to the hospital so that he doesn’t have to wait for an ambulance. The confused, concussed, bleeding man asks her nonsensical questions, but wonders about her frenzied driving and becomes concerned when she passes a series of hospitals. Ultimately she arrives at her destination and drops him off by the side of the road, where he collapses. Bolognini is lesser known that some of the greats on The Witches’ directorial roster, but he helmed The Big Night (1959) with a script from Pasolini and The Inheritance (1976). This quick episode is amusing but is sort of an afterthought compared to the other segments.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Earth As Seen From The Moon
The comic crown jewel of the anthology is this film that reunites Pasolini with comic legend Totò, Pasolini’s ex-lover and close friend Ninetto Davoli, and composer Ennio Morricone. This whimsical film follows a vibrantly red-haired father and son as they search for a new “mama” after their matriarch has passed away. After a number of false starts, they encounter the beautiful Assurdina, a mute and deaf woman with greenish hair and a generous spirit, who agrees to join the little family. She fixes up their tiny shack, but accidentally dies when her new husband cooks up a scheme to earn them enough money to buy a house.
Similar to Pasolini’s previous absurdist fairy tale, The Hawks and Sparrows, which also starred Ninetto and Davoli, this is both funnier and more absurd. It lacks the pedantic moral element of the former film and is a funny, endearing romp that pokes fun at the human quest for advancement. I think this is the best of the five films and Mangano also at her most compelling and this was the start of a multi-film collaboration between she and Pasolini that includes many of his mid-period films like Oedipus Rex and Teorema. And if you think death by slipping on a banana peel is hilarious, then this is definitely the film for you.
Franco Rossi’s The Sicilian Woman
This penultimate segment from Franco Rosso, a lesser known director who made a number of anthology films and The Counterfeiters (1953), is another brief but amusing glimpse at Mangano. She plays a scorned woman who admits to her father after much cajoling that a man flirted with her and then rebuffed her. In response, he father kills the man and his entire family, while a hysterical Mangano protests his deeds. I enjoyed this one a lot more than Civic Sense, but its sole purpose is really to serve as a palate-cleanser between Pasolini’s film and the final episode.
Vittorio De Sica’s An Evening Like the Others
This might actually be tied with The Earth As Seen From The Moon as my favorite film in the anthology. Mangano stars as a bored house wife who is frustrated that her successful businessman husband is always tired or distracted. While doing the dishes after dinner, she begins to fantasize about how things could be different — she sees him in a number of roles, such as lover, jealous husband, and villain. Though he promises her he will work at renewing their romance, he falls asleep and snores loudly. This wonderful short effortlessly shifts between fantasy and reality and feels very much like a musical without songs as it graduates into more and more elaborate fantasies. There’s a wonderful ending sequence where the wife, trying to prove to her husband on a grand scale how sexy she can be, performs in a stadium full of hundreds and strips away layers and layers of ball gowns.
Allegedly the reason why The Witches is so obscure is because United Artists purchased the film and kept it out of theaters because the actor who co-starred as the boring husband — Clint Eastwood — was on the rise to fame as an action star in the US. I’m not entirely sure why, because he’s both funny and charming in the role and it’s definitely nice to see another side of Italy’s favorite American gunslinger. The above picture of Mangano as some sort of sci-fi villainess is from one of the wife's fantasies and is such a tease that I wish some of the segments had been more horror/cult-focused.
Overall I would recommend The Witches thanks to the segments from Pasolini and De Sica. Certainly anyone with a passion for the weird trend of European art house anthologies, Mangano, Pasolini, De Sica, Visconti, and Clint Eastwood will find a lot to enjoy in this pleasant way to pass two hours. Luckily United Artists have relaxed their death grip and you can find the film on DVD.