Marco Bellocchio’s Devil in the Flesh (1986) starts with a shot of several, interconnected buildings: a high-angle view encompassing the three areas where the action of the eight-minute opening sequence will take place.
There is a classroom, situated on the highest floor of one structure; an ample, deserted terrace, located in front of this classroom; and the roof of a third building, adjacent to both. An unnamed black woman (Doris Jean Foster) appears on the top of this roof: barefoot, wearing only a white nightgown, she walks and talks to herself, bowing and gesturing.
The camera now moves inside the classroom, where Andrea (Federico Pitzalis) is the only student who has noticed this woman on the roof. A loud scream disrupts the lesson, and all the pupils run to the windows. The third key space is now brought into play: on the terrace, a man who will soon identify himself as a Catholic priest tries to dissuade the woman from jumping.
Bellocchio draws a precise diagram of the struggle at the centre of the film: madness, besieged on all sides by two institutions – church and school (a third, psychiatry, will make an appearance later) – that are both seduced and horrified by its manifestation. The only way these institutions can deal with such madness is by subordinating it to their doctrines and powers. The teacher – who, a moment ago, was delivering a perfectly packaged lecture about the school’s taming of Giovanni Pascoli’s poetry – panics and warns his students not to lean out the window. The priest preaches anxiously, forbidding the woman to take her own life. She points at him and laughs hysterically – covering her ears and rejecting the discourse forced onto her.
A later shot of the sequence takes us inside a semi-dark room. The racket has awoken Giulia (Maruschka Detmers), who goes out on the terrace. When her eyes get accustomed to the light, she sees the black woman in front of her. The soundscape changes. The screaming ceases abruptly. Some words float and reverberate in the air. Cut to the other woman who, in a childish pose, scared and paranoid, looks around as if searching for the source of this phantasmatic voice. Suddenly, she turns to Giulia – who stands at the terrace’s rail, several steps away from her mother and the priest. A theremin-like sound breaks the dead silence, giving the scene an outer-space quality. The noise made by the tiles, as the woman tries to stand up, is amplified.
A shot taken from within the patio that connects the three buildings shows several people on their balconies: they look over their heads in order to catch a glimpse of the suicidal woman poised at the roof’s edge. This shot enforces the full-blown, dramatic expectation of the sequence, since it hinges on a decisive plot question (will she jump or not?). But the suspense generated by this question is swiftly overshadowed by a different kind of suspension. That is the paradoxical effect of the surreal image with which Bellocchio is already taking us somewhere else, pushing the scene in another direction, opening up a hole right at the core of this unresolved life-and-death situation.
An intricate itinerary of the gaze is staged across several shots. Captivated by the sight of the suicidal woman, a female student rests her arms on Andrea’s shoulders at the very moment that he notices Giulia for the first time. Meanwhile, Giulia and the black woman stare at each other. Something happens between them. Something that is far deeper and more mysterious than any conventional process of communication or identification. These two women know nothing about each other, just as we know nothing about either of them. It all hinges on one single, striking, figural resemblance: dragged from their sleep, still in nightgowns that are ill-fitting and hastily put on, they don’t seem to belong to this world – a world properly dressed and in motion, a world already immersed in its daily rituals.
A tear runs down the black woman’s cheek, then another tear, and yet another. Behind her, the sky and the landscape resemble a thickly painted, white and green background that makes the universe fade away. She looks at Giulia – at the camera, at us – with solicitous eyes, uttering the same foreign words, over and over again. The tears keep wetting her face, but calmly. Her body remains still, constrained, almost petrified. It’s Giulia who now, in turn, sighs, sobs and quivers uncontrollably.
As if suddenly awoken from a trance, the woman realises where she is and cries for help. Once she is rescued, routine creeps back in. Normality is abruptly re-established: Giulia, already dressed, combs her hair on the terrace; the interrupted class proceeds … But something remains. Like an after-image glimpsed in the window of a nocturnal train. Two tracking shots with different speeds and directions – one across Giulia walking on the terrace, the other across Andrea looking at her from his desk – carry the echo of the recent commotion. A moment later, Andrea will abandon the class, exiting through the window, in order to follow Giulia in the streets.
Writing about this scene, Alain Philippon remarked that what happens between Giulia and Andrea “is staged in a literal way”, with the unknown woman functioning as “the conductor of desire: for it is by looking at her that Andrea will discover Giulia”.1
This notion of a third party working as a transmitter or enabler extends to the very making of the film itself. It is embodied in the figure of Massimo Fagioli (1931-2017) – Bellocchio’s psychoanalyst and frequent collaborator, to whom he dedicates Devil in the Flesh. Bellocchio has defined the film as a “three-way dialogue” between Detmers, Fagioli and himself, adding elsewhere: “The strange, unique, powerful performance of Detmers owes a lot to Fagioli”.2 While we don’t know the exact details of this “three-way dialogue”, the results are there for us to see on screen.
The opening sequence encapsulates and lays bare what’s so haunting in Detmers’ acting. For if, in Devil in the Flesh, she can cry like a river or burst into a laugh that is like a summer storm, it’s because nothing resembling will is inscribed in Giulia’s character. She shivers, freezes and sweats, shaken by passions bigger than herself, overflowed by streams she can’t contain. Her face, rather than expressing, becomes a landscape caressed by the sun or suddenly obscured by dark clouds. It’s all a matter of motion, propagation, transmission; of turning the body and the gaze into vessels and openings for the circulation of violent, uncontrollable affects.
1. Alain Philippon, “La subversion du monde par l’amour” (1986), in Le blanc des origines (Yellow Now, 2002), pp. 294-295.
2. Quoted in Dominique Bax & Cyril Béghin (eds), Marco Bellocchio / Carmelo Bene (Théâtres au cinéma, Tome 20, Magic Cinéma, 2009), p. 68.