Sergio Martino • Director
“If you are not making arthouse films, people treat you with suspicion”
by Marta Bałaga
- Cineuropa met up with cult Italian director Sergio Martino, who had a mini-retrospective dedicated to him at Finland’s Night Visions genre festival
Celebrated for his achievements within the giallo genre, Sergio Martino’s filmography is very diverse, as proven by the titles shown at Helsinki’s recent Night Visions (20-24 November): Torso, Violent Professionals, 2019: After the Fall of New York and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, starring his pet actress Edwige Fenech as an heiress fearing her past might be catching up with her. We chatted to the cult director at Night Visions.
Cineuropa: How do you explain this never-ending fascination with giallo? Your films alone have inspired numerous directors.
Sergio Martino: Not just the giallos, I think. In Giovannona Long-Thigh, Edwige Fenech played a prostitute hired to pose as the wife of a CEO. She looked very refined, but once she opened her mouth… A bit like in Pretty Woman. It all started with Quentin Tarantino falling to his knees when we first met, yelling: “Maestro, maestro!” Guillermo del Toro calls me that, too, but I don’t take it too seriously. He acknowledged being inspired by The Island of the Fishmen when making The Shape of Water, then there was Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, riffing on my 2019: After the Fall of New York – which had a mercenary out to rescue the last fertile woman on Earth. I had a scene playing out in front of Picasso’s Guernica, and so did he! In Italy, if you are not making arthouse films, people treat you with suspicion. But we can’t all make films like Antonioni! Even though his best, Blow-Up, is actually a giallo.
Coming from a Catholic country, with the Church pretty much crawling into people’s beds, were your early “sex comedies” regarded as controversial?
I am not sure if Giovannona… was that “sexy” – maybe just a bit spicy. It was more grotesque than seductive. Italy was a bigoted country back then – to get a Playboy we had to travel to France. And then, as it began to transform, you would start seeing a bit of nudity. When I was a child, in church there was always a list of films they were “recommending” and ones they were warning you against watching. Mario Soldati made a film with some dancers once [I’m in the Revue], barely showing any leg at all, but I made the mistake of admitting I had seen it – they immediately called my parents. So to go from that to the kind of cinema that was more risqué, with some violence in it, was quite a step.
1971’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is an odd take on female sexuality, don’t you think? It’s dark, complex and politically incorrect.
The trick was to show erotic scenes, but also to shoot some that were so out-there that the censors would have something to cut. We got pretty good at that. These “sex films” I made gave me a certain amount of notoriety that some of my colleagues, or fellow “Tarantinians”, as I call them, simply didn’t have. That proved useful, as whenever something was forbidden for under 18s, all the kids would be flocking to see it.
You can’t limit human sexuality to a sentimental gesture of eternal love. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have got the Marquis de Sade! I am not justifying any violent acts, let’s make that clear, and I have been married for over 50 years. But there is this primal aspect to it, which is certainly interesting to explore. It reminds me of the story about a man who kept on cheating on his wife, with a priest trying to convince him to stop. He would always feed him the same thing, until the priest went: “Maybe something different this time?” To which he answered: “My point exactly.”
The Mountain of the Cannibal God was another example of that combination of sex and violence, but it was the treatment of the animals that caused controversy. To which you replied: “The monkey was placed next to the snake, yes, but it had every chance to escape.”
Have you even seen a python? It sleeps all the time. We wanted to shoot a scene with the monkey just coming close to the danger, but it happened so fast. I can understand these accusations, especially if someone thought we had done this on purpose. Other than that, it was a perfectly pleasant experience.
I still remember this moment in Italian cinema when we had a real industry. We would make 350 films a year! The crisis started with the digital revolution, with Blade Runner or Steven Spielberg’s films being some of the first to use the kind of technology that was unknown in Italy. We missed our chance to make sure Italian genre films would keep on being relevant. In Violent Professionals, for example, all of the effects were real. The risk was real. Today, the actors stand in front of a green screen, although when they were shooting Casablanca, it’s not like they went there either. I come from a family that always worked in film. My grandfather was a successful director of the “white telephone” comedies. He died in 1949, after making two films with Anna Magnani. I wrote about this in my book, A Thousand Sins… No Virtue?
That book was named after your film [known internationally as Wages of Sin]. Someone once said that title is a perfect summary of your entire career.
I can’t disagree.
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