Not of This World (Fuori dal mondo) (1999)

Jonathan Kiefer

Giuseppe Piccioni is no cynic (or he pretends not to be), but he does have a healthy respect for the many ways in which people fail to come together.

Not of This World (fuori Dal Mondo)

Director: Giuseppe Piccioni
Cast: Margherita Buy, Silvio Orlando, Carolina Freschi, Maria Cristina Minerva
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Lumiere & Co.
First date: 1999
US DVD Release Date: 2003-02-04

If a nun is on the fence in the first act, her habit must come off in the last. That's near enough to what Chekhov wrote, at least as far as Italian director Giuseppe Piccioni is concerned. His recent film, Not of This World, now on DVD, begins swiftly: With less than a year to go before her final vows, a Milanese nun named Caterina (Margherita Buy) is on the fence about her betrothal to God. "Before you make plans," the Mother Superior (Sonia Gessner) cautions, perhaps nudgingly, "you have to be sure of your choice." She seems tuned in to Caterina's ambivalence and we get the idea that something's got to give.

Handily, a jogger accosts Caterina in a park shortly thereafter, handing over an abandoned newborn he's discovered nearby. The jogger, it turns out, is a rather shady parolee, who shouldn't have left his house to begin with and isn't about to stick around. He takes it on faith, as it were, that the nun's sense of moral duty is reliable. Who else in this world can you trust to care for an unwanted child? Caterina makes a helpless face. The baby yawns. The music swells.

Caterina's sense of moral duty is reliable, of course. She examines the child for clues to his origin, and traces the sweater in which he is wrapped back to a Milan laundry service. The owner of the place, Ernesto (Silvio Orlando), is a particularly glum fellow. A blase businessman and walking-wounded bachelor, Ernesto is emotionally stunted, he will later reveal, from an earlier jilting.

The engine for his transformation is Caterina and Ernesto's shared task of tracking down the infant's mother (Carolina Freschi), a young woman formerly in Ernesto's employ, and, fatefully perhaps, his bed. Ernesto rather enjoys the idea of fatherhood, in the same way that Caterina seems to enjoy this kind of almost motherhood. Actually, it's kind of an issue for her, a personal not a religious one. We also briefly meet her own mother, who clearly took it personally when Caterina decided to become a nun: "There's always something more important than your mother!" she snaps, and presumably her desire for grandchildren.

Ernesto, too, has had problems relating to people who should be close to him. He says he's prayed for another chance to be better to them, but his prayers have never been granted. Nor have most of Caterina's, she reveals. And so, under all these maternal and familial pressures/desires, her habit does come off -- and it's to Piccioni's credit that we're as startled and riveted as Ernesto is when it finally happens. The director wisely delivers his most potent gestures with calm simplicity, and without doting. It's a nice thing, as that's the sort of discretion we've come to expect from a couldn't-be-made-in-America movie like this, a movie whose distinctive elegance and humanity are, well, not quite of this (Hollywood) world.

In that tradition, there's great cinematic stuff here -- furtive and desperate glances, aborted phone calls, unsent letters. The characters share a habit of confessing their most lonesome and insecure feelings. On the other hand, what in European film is new about furtive desperation and inner life confessionals (especially in a movie about a nun)? And is it unfair to attribute the preening tendency of Ludovico Einaudi's score to his basic "Italianness"? Though it anchors Piccioni's careful structure, the score is assertive in a way that somehow seems both bullying and apologetic. Near the end of the film, after a moment of dramatized reticence on the adoptive parents' doorstep, Caterina removes the final piece of her nun's habit, the crucifix, and gives it to them on the baby's behalf. The music, Enya-like, swells again.

The moment -- one of real human contact -- was moving already, and cumulative. Piccioni's apparent subject is estrangement. He's no cynic (or he pretends not to be), but he does have a healthy respect for the many ways in which people fail to come together. If they try to invest in lives other than their own, it's from ill-advised curiosity, inconvenient necessity, or clumsy guilt, and in any case the timing's no good. "Things always happen at the wrong moment," observes an uncertain young nun-in-training, "too early or too late, before, after..."

It doesn't seem like Piccioni has a real solution in mind but he does have a humane goal, which is affinity. He creates a world in which an abandoned infant will certainly be attended and loved, but not without sending a ripple of upheaval through at least half a dozen other lives. The film isn't quite courageous enough to fully examine its outlook, maybe for fear of catechizing, which it does adroitly avoid. But just why are we so out of sync with each other's lives? Is God involved, and testing us? Will we ever pass? If Piccioni only glances at the big themes, and finally ends the conversation with a shrug, it is at least a shrug of gentle, agnostic humility, not apathy.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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