A daring, sometimes questionable, remake of Visconti’s 1954 drama Senso, Black Angel takes decadence and debauchery to the stormy heights of elegantly-trimmed and bejewelled pulp erotica. Essentially a love story between an aging Italian socialite and a randy young Nazi officer, Black Angel manages to essay a despairing love affair between two improbable lovers as much as it does fascism.
Not the most reliable name in cinema, Tinto Brass has made a living generating works that merge the heady exploits of European psychedelia with the bizarre sex found in some of the more unusual exploitation films. Brass doesn’t bar much of the sex here, even though Black Angel is considered his most restrained work. But his use of sexuality does seem to serve some purpose, other than to arouse the lustful curiosities of his audiences.
Livia (Anna Galiena) is the wife of an official for Italy’s fascist regime during Hitler’s reign. Miserable with her boring, unattractive husband, Livia’s eye wanders where it meets the handsome and cruel Helmut (Gabriel Garko), a Nazi officer stationed in Italy. Livia’s first liaisons with the German officer are timid flirtations, which pull on her guilt of her extramarital affair and instill the fear of deadly consequences. Soon the Italian beauty is under the spell of the charming, unscrupulous Helmut, who doesn’t exactly subscribe to the Nazi beliefs of which he serves.
Helmut, it seems, cares only for a life of extravagance in which he can indulge in his most base fantasies. This excites Livia so much that she believes she can live a full life with her much younger object of obsession. Blinded by wishful thinking, Livia spurns her husband at every turn, even at the risk of him discovering her affair.
When Livia offers Helmut a large sum of money with his promise that he will meet her later in Venice after he is re-stationed, her dreams of living a perfect union with her lover seem realized. Unfortunately, Helmut has other plans – and they don’t include Livia. Once Livia finds out just what Helmut has been up to behind her back, she exacts a most vicious revenge in which no party is left unscathed.
It would be easy (and understandable) to dismiss Black Angel as a film in poor taste. First of all, having a name like Tinto Brass attached to the project is sure to raise some eyebrows. Known as one of the reigning kings of exploitation cinema, Brass has managed to carve out a reputation only admirable amongst aficionados of arty softcore films. As well, framing a highly salacious and erotic love story in which Nazism seems fetishized is sure to leave some uncomfortable.
However, once you look past Brass’ excess of sexual leisure, there’s a story of true worth here that is manifested in the at once nuanced and dramatic performance of Galiena. Guliena’s portrayal of an older woman possessed by her desires and navigating an unforgivable set of male-dominated circumstances often recalls the work of fellow Italian actor Stefania Sandrelli. Both women have explored the issues of sexuality in middle age onscreen, and here Galiena paints a woman of poise and vulnerability.
In actor Garko, Galiena finds a perfect counterpoint in which she can play her vulnerabilities against. Garko affects a seductively cruel figure that cuts through the surrounding drama with a boyish elegance. Whether he is written that way or it is down to Garko’s onscreen charisma doesn’t entirely matter; it’s simply the reactionary platform he provides Galiena so that she may explore her character deeply which counts most.
There are some moments which trouble the film. While Brass has dipped into much more contemptible waters of exploitation in the past, Black Angel does have in it a fair amount of sexuality that is bound to put off some viewers. A decadent sex party scene is filmed with strong artistic assurance, but it goes on for an uncomfortably long period of time, lingering explicitly over body parts in a way that gives away Brass’ personal inclination toward erotic voyeurism.
In other moments, the filmmaker somewhat degrades his leading lady by having her engage in scenes in which the sexual activity depicted goes unnecessarily too far. Being an actor who has a firm handle on her character, Galiena manages to keep her dignity, walking a straight and narrow path to the film’s end. But there are some moments which fall too close to exploitation along the way.
Cult Epics delivers a fine transfer with Black Angel. Images are rendered crisp and clear and colours are full, rich and warm. The colour palette is limited to a few choice hues, namely red and black, which are splendidly contrasted against flesh tones. Smart, stark and sharp, Brass’ simple colour scheme is orchestrated with the erudite touch of some of the more accomplished filmmakers. Sound and dialogue come through very clearly with no issues with distortion. The film is in Italian language with English subtitles.
The disc features a behind-the-scenes documentary which sheds some light on the ideas that went into making the film. Brass proves that the initial conception of remaking Visconti’s film (which was actually based on an obscure novella by Camillo Boito) was not simply an exercise in rehashing a tried and true formula of art-house erotica, but a well-planned exploit into giving the original story a little more depth. There are also some revealing interviews with the actors in the film and leading lady Galiena discusses developing a sincere character within the story’s sweltering sexual climate.
Black Angel refers to one of cinema’s age-old questions: is it art or porn? For some, the answer will seem obvious. Depending on one’s threshold for onscreen sexual activity, Brass’ film may not jive well with some. Despite being beautifully shot and visually conceived with an expert craftsman’s touch, there are plenty of brazenly erotic situations here which will put off even some of the more open-minded viewers.
However, if you bank solely on the performances to pull you through, you can find a genuine story here in which the sexual activity serves simply as a conduit for the repressed angst and rage that are felt when desires are not satiated. Brass may not be able to live down his reputation as cinema’s most obvious fetish provocateur, but he manages an elegance in Black Angel, one that articulates the seedier ends of desire in only the most handsome of ways.