I don’t consider myself to be an “expert” on too many things in life. However, when it comes to the horror sub-genre of Italian giallo films, I’ll go ahead and say that I know more than most. In fact, it was a big part of my graduate studies while in film school. One of my professors also had a strange affinity for late ’70s euro-trash, and we would constantly try to one-up each other. We would even go so far as to screen rare 35mm prints during his office hours. That sounds tough, I know. This led to the exposure of probably hundreds of films that neither of us would’ve seen on our own. It was a wonderful learning experience, and probably the highlight of my time in the program.
The giallo film is something of an enigma. It encapsulates a very specific time & place in film history. Featuring over-saturated colors, snap edits, prog-rock/synth soundtracks, and almost ALWAYS a mysterious black-gloved killer. The term giallo means yellow in Italian. It refers to the old dime novels that were often printed on yellow paper and featured over the top scenes violence and sex. The film counterparts are no different. I like to say that these films are often imitated, and never duplicated. I have seen dozens of abysmal attempts at recapturing the magic of that specific time. Almost all have failed…until now. It is with great pleasure that I can HIGHLY recommend Unearthed Films recent release of ‘Francesca’. This film is by far the most superb example of how to do it right. I have almost no gripes with the film, and I would say that if you didn’t know any better, the film feels like it was made in the 70’s alongside the finest works of Dario Argento. Keep in mind I’ve seen hundreds of these films, and it has been a nearly impossible task to recreate in my opinion.
The key to the giallo is the attention to detail. The form is known for being a little abstract and colorful, trying to elevate the pulp material into a true art form. It treads on the path of experimental and trashy, but in an almost beautiful dance, mixing the two. The newer attempts at recreating miss the point of the classic giallo. A recent film like ‘The Editor’ did a spectacular job of skewering the giallo style. It was irreverent and very accurate, but it was a spoof above all things. Other recent entries by the Belgian duo of Cattet and Forzani have also put forth excellent efforts with films like ‘Amer’ & ‘The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears’. These are also excellent films, but they take the style too far pushing the genre into an almost art/experimental film territory. Narrative has never been the strong suit of giallo films, but those examples throw narrative out the window entirely. I think it was Scorsese who once classified these films as “style over substance”. These recent films ooze with style, but they lack the substance to make them perfect examples of the genre. ‘Francesca’ is not a spoof or an experimental film. It is however, an art film and a stellar example of what the genre means to so many of us. It follows nearly every benchmark to become something of a love letter to the genre. In fact, while I was watching the film I had to stop myself from gasping at every reference to the classics. It reminded me of Tarantino in that it borrowed from everything of substance, while still remaining fiercely original. It took just enough from the master’s while giving itself it’s own identity.
I know, talk about the damn movie already!! ‘Francesca’ tells the story of a recent slew of murders that are somehow affiliated with the disappearance of the titular character 15 years prior. Two detectives set out to solve the murders, piecing together the mysteries of the past and drinking plenty of J&B along the way. As the murders progress in ferocity, so does the odd cast of characters that may be affiliated with the crimes. The murder set pieces are nearly perfect, and the use of color, close-up, and intensity rival the best in the business. The rapid shift into what feels like late ’70s techno music while the murders are taking place, feels as if Goblin did the score themselves. The special edition also comes with the soundtrack of the film, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that it’s been in my car for the past week. At a tight 77 minutes, the film manages to put all the most important twists and turns into place and create something truly special. Half the time the fun with these films is trying to figure out who the killer is. While the conclusion is somewhat predictable, it manages to add a few over-the-top giallo twists that make it a prime example.
What makes the film even more interesting is that two brothers from, of all places, Argentina made it. Luciano Onetti & Nicolás Onetti are clearly students of their craft. They wrote, produced, directed, edited, and scored the entire film between the two of them! This is a massive undertaking with complete control from start to finish, and it shows. You would think that the film was made in Rome with an all Italian cast & crew. It is however made in Argentina, using some terrific backdrops that could easily pass for Italian settings. This is the second outing for the brothers attempting to master the giallo. Their first film ‘Sonno Profondo’ was a solid effort, but lacked the panache to make it feel like it was from the era. The first film follows the perspective of the killer, and often wandered too far into the abstract. They seem to have learned from the former film’s mistakes and crafted what I would consider to be the best giallo film, NOT from the giallo era.
For anyone who loves ‘Francesca’ I would highly recommend ‘Sonno Profondo’ as the two films are companion pieces.
Even the film and camera techniques make it feel authentic. It’s grainy and oversaturated giving it an old time feel. The director experimented with various color corrections and film stocks before deciding on what we have on screen. And lastly, but almost most importantly, the use of ADR (Automated dialogue replacement) comes through perfectly and intentionally bad. Many of the early films were made in English with Italian actors. So the actors would phonetically speak the lines and then English speaking actors would dub over the actors on screen. The results were often hilariously disjointed, giving the viewer the feeling that something was off. It became one of the main things the genre was known for. While ‘Francesca’ is in Italian, the use of ADR recreates that feeling exquisitely. The original directors knew that their films would reach a much larger film market if they were in English, so it was a necessary evil. Trust me when I say that when most of the newer films try to do this, they fail and miserably. ‘Francesca’ does not suffer from this common pitfall. It puts in all together in a nice little package.
This film will not be for the casual viewer. It is best enjoyed by someone that has an understanding of the genre, and an eye for the tropes that giallo is known for. That’s not to say that a novice viewer won’t enjoy it, it just hits the sweet spot for those in the know. In fact the more giallo films you’ve seen the more special ‘Francesca’ becomes. The rumor is that the brothers are working on a third film to complete their giallo trilogy, and if that’s true, I personally can’t wait. If the improvement between film one and two are any indication of what film three can be, the world may not be ready for the greatest example of neo-giallo to come to light. This writer waits patiently, and knows that all good things are worth waiting for.