aka The Forbidden Room
Dino Risi, 1977
Runtime: 100 min.
Format: DVDR

Anima Persa is a quiet little movie; most genre fans are unaware of its existence, and the film world has paid it little mind outside of the fact that it features Catherine Deneuve in one of her most subtle roles. For some reason the film is often described as being a sort of giallo-drama hybrid, but the only similarity it has between the gialli of the time is that it's set in Venice, features beautiful women and has an enigmatic overtone.

The plot of the film is fairly straight forward-- Tino (Danilo Mattei, who would later go on to star in Cannibal Ferox) moves to Venice to live with his Aunt and Uncle while studying art locally. At first everything seems normal; Tino meets his Aunt at their beautiful castle villa and is briefly shown around the house. He goes to bed and awakens to find his Uncle Fabio (played by Vittorio Gassman) staring at him, immediately accosting him for sleeping so late. Once he wakes and washes his uncle walks him to the small academy where Tino will be taking his art lessons, meanwhile commenting on the inadequacies of Tino's soon to be classmates.

Class starts, and Tino is astounded when a beautiful young girl, Lucia (played by the gorgeous Anicee Alvina, most memorable as the aristocrats daughter in Robbe-Grillet's Playing with Fire), strips. He seems to fall in love on the spot, and spends much of his free time chasing the girl. A tiny romance develops, but the romance is mostly inconsequential to the main story.

At home Tino soon discovers that his Aunt and Uncle's relationship is quite tense, his uncle always deriding his aunt and essentially retaining utter control over her. Tino also begins to hear strange noises coming from the floor above him, but nobody will tell him what the sounds are.

Eventually the house maid Annetta reveals to Tino that his Uncles brother, apparently insane for the last few decades, is kept locked in the forbidden room that his Aunt had warned him never to go near, never coming out. The maid loudly makes fun of the man's craziness, remarking upon the resemblance that the man has to a snake when he sticks his tongue out. Tino, very curious about why the man is actually locked up in a room, begins to investigate, learning more and more about his Aunt and Uncles relationship and their bizarre family history.

Anima Persa is a movie that relies entirely on the enigmatic mood it builds, and for once, that reliance works perfectly. There is not that much that actually occurs during the film; in fact a large majority of the film depicts either the demeaning relationship between Tino's Aunt and Uncle or Tino's own inconsequential affair with Lucia.

The best thing about the film is what is alluded too, rather than what is depicted. While Tino and his uncle walk the streets of Venice, Fabio tells him about his brothers belief that God could be found among insects. His uncle remarks about how his brother had torn down the crucifix that was above his bed, replacing it with a close up shot of a scorpion. Tino asks if these beliefs and obsessions were what led to his insanity, but his uncle replies that he doesn't think so; he believes that insanity is in the genes, prone to lashing out every other generation or so. The naive Tino seems to pay no mind.

The ending of the film comes as an utter surprise, with the rest of the film building an utter atmosphere and spiraling perfectly to the conclusion. The music from the film adds to the enigmatic mess on screen; perfectly building tension as Tino walks around the essentially abanoned mansion. The acting, for the most part, is wonderful. Catherine Deneuve plays Sofia, Tino's Aunt, with an utter sense of subtlety-- somewhat of a lush, she is always cowering under her husbands wrath; we can see her constantly on the edge of something. The powerful Uncle Fabio (Vittorio Gassman) is also consistently good throughout the film, portraying his decadent machismo attitude to a T. Even the naive Tino is depicted well, appropriately curious about yet terrified by almost everything that surrounds him. His characterization of a boy on the brink of adulthood is excellent.

The only main qualm I have with the film is the ending; after the revelatory moment (which thankfully doesn't tie up EVERY loose end, choosing instead to leave some elements of the story unclear and mysterious), Tino simply leaves Venice, completely unphased or affected by the events that transpired in the villa. But aside from the absolute ending, Anima Persa is a subtle, atmospheric joy to watch, and can definitely be recommended to a viewer looking for something out of the ordinary.

Mike Kitchell, 2007