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CENSORSHIP HISTORY

* Prohibited from screening uncut in art-house and foreign film theatres in the USA due to its brief fellatio scene, this film was forced to play in XXX and Grindhouse cinemas on its US release. Unsurprisingly, it drew little attention, the Christian moralizers responsible for this decision successfully burying the film from critical or audience scrutiny.

* Maruschka Detmers became the first recognized "name" actress to perform in a sexually explicit scene in a mainstream movie with her performance in this film. Some two decades later, Chloe Sevigny would shoot to fame in the USA for similalrly performing an explicit fellatio scene in the film The Brown Bunny for her husband and co-star, director Vincent Gallo.

* The film played at the Toronto Film Festival after reluctant clearance. This loosening of censorship co-incided with the rise in prestige of the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival)


CRITICIAL RESPONSES

"The (fellatio) scene isn't exactly offensive, nor is it especially necessary. It's not funny in the way of something that's utterly gratuitous - Mr. Bellocchio is too good a film maker for that. However, by being so specific, the scene successfully interrupts whatever dramatic line the film has previously established."
(Canby, V. [1987]. "Devil in the Flesh". New Tork Times. Retreived on 6/12/2011 from HERE)

"That characters engage in a given sexual practice is one thing. That the camera shows them doing it for a longish period of time is another. Explicit sexuality has the strangest power to turn a narrative film into a documentary: The moment the characters take off their clothes and get down to business, we aren't looking at characters anymore, we're looking at naked actors. The fellatio scene is not very erotic, but then the political scenes are not very political, and the scenes of madness have a muted quality, as well."
(Ebert, R. [1987]. "Devil in the Flesh". Chicago Sun-Times. July 19th, 1987. retrieved on 6/12/2011 from HERE)


ADDITIONAL READING














DEVIL IN THE FLESH (1985)
d. Marco Bellochio; pr. Leo Percarolo; scr. Ennio De Concini, Marco Bellochio, Enrico Palandri; ph. Giuseppe Lanci; m. Carlo Crivelli; ed. Mirco Garrone; cast. Maruschka Detmers, Federico Pitzalis, Anita Laurenzi, Alberto Di Stasio, Riccardo De Torrebruna (114 mins)

Italian Movie Poster Art for Devil in the Flesh

Original Italian Poster Art

X-Rated European Art Film Denied US Cinema Release

Marco Bellochio’s film of Devil in the Flesh proved one of the most controversial films of the mid-1980s. 

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Maruschka Detmers' Controversial Fellatio Scene
(viewer discretion advised: contains actual sex)

Updating the Raymond Radiguet novel to contemporary Italy in the grip of the Red Brigade terrorists, the film was an immediate talking point for its combination of politics and sex.  In its native Italy, the producer feared Bellochio’s explicit eroticism and so took the film negative away, hoping to re-cut the film to satisfy nervous financers.  The matter was taken to court, where authorities sided with Bellochio who was allowed to release his film in the version he intended, with eroticism intact.  This eroticism included an explicit fellatio scene involving actress Maruschka Detmers, effectively the first time a name actress participated in an actual sex scene on film.  When the film came to the USA it caused a new wave of protest based on this explicitness and was duly rated “X”, synonymous with hardcore pornography even though Bellochio’s film was more of an art-house venture.  Indeed, the US distributor, Orion, decided to distribute the film in art-house circuits with its X-rating, the first time an X-rated film had been so unnervingly distributed.  It was from there that its cult reputation grew steadily, Bellochio acknowledging the collaborative support of noted psycho-analyst Massimo Fagioli for the sex scenes: indeed, Bellochio and Fagioli would work together on several other films – The Witches’ Sabbath, The Conviction and The Butterfly’s Dream.

Synopsis (contains spoilers)

Devil in the Flesh concerns a young woman (Maruschka Detmers) who is the lover of a radical youth currently on trial on terrorism charges.  She attracts the attention of a student (Federico Pitzalis) who watches her from the school complex opposite the large apartment she occupies.

The apartment is to be a gift to Detmers when she eventually marries the youth on trial.  Pitzalis follows Detmers to the trial and she soon approaches him, the two of them noting the sexual liaisons of the youthful terrorists kept in a cage in the center of the courtroom.  The two of them develop a sexual interest in one another.  Pitzalis is observed with her by a man who reports back to Pitzalis’ father, a noted psychiatrist who has previously treated Detmers and considers her crazy.  Pitzalis seems unconcerned by his studies and more and more fixated by Detmers, even though she may not want to see him.  The father fears for the worse as Detmers and Pitzalis embark on a passionate affair.  Pitzalis’ body is seen in her bed by Detmer’s future mother-in-law who now fears for her son’s fate in Detmers’ hands.  The father warns his son against continuing the affair and is soon contacted by the mother in law.  As the pressure mounts, the lovers continue their encounters although both feel the tension as the trial verdict nears its conclusion and Detmers must face the choice between two men just as Pitzalis must face his exams.

Patriarchal Establishment threatened by Anarchic Sexual Passion

Devil in the Flesh is a film which parallels sex and political radicalism.  It uses its context of Red Brigade terrorism as a backdrop to the study of a sexual passion which threatens the operations of the Patriarchal establishment.

US DVD Cover art for Devil in the Flesh

US DVD Cover Art

This patriarchal establishment is represented by the psychiatrist who considers Detmers mad primarily because as a sexual free spirit she is a threat to his sense of bourgeois sexual propriety.  He has his erotic fantasies and memories which he cannot see expressed and so considers her a destabilizing threat to Patriarchal authority – just the traditions in part that his son is being schooled in and reacts to with sheer calculated indifference.  Sexual expression is a challenge thus to the established order, in fact also a covert and overt form of terrorism in that it threatens to erode and overthrow traditional values.  The decision Detmers finally faces is thus one between the traditional (marriage to a former radical) and the passionately sexual and it is a choice that director Bellochio sees as facing the entire generation of young Italians who matured amidst the student radicalism of Red Brigades terrorism.  In that alliance of sexuality and political radicalism lies the film’s truly subversive charge even if the actual details of the political terrorism involved are kept vague and insinuated.  Eroticism is subversion for Bellochio and as a deliberate challenge to family values, the nudity and sex in Devil in the Flesh is politically confrontational.

Bellochio himself admitted the film as concerning a young man who rebels against the law of the father and in this celebration of generational defiance is found another sly note of his political subversion.

Traditional authority figures – the psychiatrist, the teachers, the lawyers – are shunned by Pitzalis who does just as much as he can to get by and survive in their old world tradition.  His relationship with the unstable Detmers allows him an invigorating means of defiance and she in turn finds in him a means of tempering her own emotional turmoil to some degree.  In their relativism is found passion, inter-personal communication, love and a consequence which Bellochio clearly feels is impossible in the kind of traditional marriage and family future which faces both of them.  The law of the father may be political but is expressed in terms of the control of sexual propriety.  Sexuality is thus a threat to any established order and an inherently anarchic form of human celebration.  By thematically and self-consciously embracing explicit eroticism, Bellochio uses cinema to radically challenge the notions of what constitutes socially acceptable discourse.  The politicization of pornography has rarely been achieved with as much deliberation as Bellochio offers here, making Devil in the Flesh a must see for those interested in the possibilities of adult cinema.  It is both visionary and politically revolutionary as a piece of cinema.

Long Take Explicitness as Psychoanalytic Play

Cinema Plus Magazine Cover

Cinema Plus Magazine Cover

The DVD transfer is available in a lush, pristine anamorphic widescreen.  It is always clean and crisp and preserves the social realism behind Bellochio’s use of longish takes. 



Screenshot:
the fellatio scene

The use of point of view shots suggests looking and attraction as joint aspects of the human condition and the means of modulating desire.  The trial of the youthful terrorists is considered as an unusual spectacle and set design vividly recreates the cages used to hold these accused radicals for trial.  Set design in Detmers’ apartment emphasis its cold emptiness in contrast to the human warmth of passion unfolding within it.  Psychoanalytic play is used in a scene with the psychiatrist and Detmers nude, blurring fantasy and memory to suggest their influence on the formulation of Patriarchal judgment.  Scenes of rowing function as a motif in the first half and the film makes good use of deep focus in scenes where the background is vivid and even compartmentalized.  The contrast between the ornate-ness of place and the wonder of the nude Detmers is frequently used, again emphasizing her as the force of sexual warmth which threatens the operations of the formal world around her.  Explicit fellatio is used in context well within one scene, where Bellochio left the actors to perform as natural as possible: it is both a natural sex act and a representation of it as political challenge to aesthetic form, a fine means of cementing the film’s radical view of sex..

Towards a Quiet, Restrained, Naturalistic Aural Space

The sound transfer is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono only but it is a smooth and crisp transfer which even manages some resonance. 

Much use is made of naturalistic ambience, the realistic details of settings and places being allowed their own validity just as Bellochio then explores the voices of the main characters that inhabit them.  Good use is made of the sometimes off-screen voices of the lawyers during the trail sequences and the unusual score makes for shrill moments and terse effects.  Nightclub music is used effectively in one of the last scenes as Detmers’ difficulty dancing is used to convey her emotional burden and also her impending choice.  This sound of the activity of youth culture is also an ironic counterpoint to the stagnation which often precedes it.  Naturalistic sound design also features in the noise of rapids during one of the rowing scenes, filtering in and out as required.The judicious score underlies the more emotional moments and abruptly ceases to permit natural silences as if reactive and disruptive in the clash of diegetic and non-diegetic effects being mused upon.  The silences of indoor space are contrasted to the busy-ness of the exteriors which give an indication of the city as large.  The sounds of mounting passion work well and there is a good inter-cutting of offscreen voices during phone call scenes.  Notable use is made of television broadcasts of the trial intrigue (from politics to religion).



Maruschka Detmers - the Nude Shot

DVD Collector Bonus Treats

There are numerous special features.  Stolen Years, Hidden Lives is a short documentary which interviews two formerly imprisoned Red Brigade members, both women.  They discuss their reactions to Bellochio’s film, their opinions on sexuality as it related to their terrorist past and prison experience and related the fundamentals of the terrorist infrastructure they wholly participated in.  They talk also of the rules of the terrorist group and the role of inter-personal relationships within a terrorist framework.  In Bellochio’s Flesh is a half hour interview with the director in which he discusses the film’s place within his overall work, his intent to confront male-female representation, the contributions of psychoanalyst Fagioli to the film and on how it enabled him to work with new places and settings.  He discusses the sets, the emphasis on light and summer tones and the risk in depicting explicit sex as both representational and metaphorical as discourse.  He sees sex as a desperate provocation to society’s traditional family values and thus discusses its context in anti-establishment themes.  He discusses the Red Brigades and the controversy the film faced in Italy and the USA.  There is also an original theatrical trailer and a poster and still gallery.  Of interest also is a collector’s booklet which gives much background into the film, the political scene in Italy and offers a biography of Bellochio as well as another brief interview extract. __

USA DVD PURCHASE INFORMATION: Devil in the Flesh
UK DVD PURCHASE INFORMATION: Devil in the Flesh [DVD] [1986] [US Import]
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(UPDATED: January 13, 2013 18:39 )

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