Every now and then the teetering Italian film industry likes to attempt a revival of that quintessentially Italian genre favourite -- the giallo. One of the prime movers in the phenomenon is Italian ex-journalist turned novelist, Carlo Lucarelli. Several of his stories have been adapted for film since the mid-nineties, and even the master of the genre Dario Argento, was so impressed with his work that he drafted in Lucarelli to tighten up the script for his recent greatest hits film package, "Nonhosonno". "Almost Blue" is perhaps the most noteworthy example of Lucarelli's attempts to update the giallo (discounting Argento's own efforts) and it finds its way to the big screen curtesy of first time director Alex Infascelli -- who has since firmly nailed his giallo colours to the mast with a second foray into the genre: his latest film, "Il Siero Della Vanita" (aka; "The Vanity Serum") is based on a novel by Niccolo Ammaniti -- author of the novella that inspired the superb, Gabriele Salvatores directed, "I'm Not Scared". Precariously positioning itself midway between a Thomas Harris-style psychological thriller and more traditional giallo fare, "Almost Blue" presents a sleek (only edging over the eighty-minute mark because of the end credits!) and interesting vehicle for Infascelli's energetic visual style and edgy Argento-esque set-pieces.
Although there is a lot here for giallo fans to enjoy, the traditional black gloved killer is dispensed with. Instead, Lucarelli's story gives us a serial killer who is very much in the Thomas Harris mould: an exotically weird psychopath whose broken mind drives him to kill in order to fulfil violent needs formed through childhood trauma and neglect. In this case, the killer (who's identity is revealed quite early on) is a depersonalised autistic (a deranged performance from Rolando Ravello) who -- while drowning out the world with constant techno music playing in his headphones -- seeks out male students his own age in the city of Bologna, murders them, removes their faces, and strips them of their clothes which he then wears while he assumes their identity. He erases his victims' existence in order to create a series of new ones for himself ... like a serpent continuously shedding its skin.
The problem is that Bologna's police force have failed to recognise they even have a serial killer on the loose in the city! Cue the arrival of Vittorio Poletto (Andrea Di Stefano) -- the ambitious head of a flash new forensics division in Rome which has developed a powerful computer-based profiling technique adapted for teasing out the hidden connections between seemingly unrelated violent crimes and drawing up an accurate profile of the killer. Poletto arrives in Bologna with Inspector Grazia Negro (Lorenza Indovina), a young policewoman colleague who is to head the investigation. The Bologna police headquarters are rather rundown and are undergoing extensive renovation when the couple arrive; the commissionaire is not altogether impressed with his Rome colleagues' reliance on computers ('follow people ... not machines" he sagely advises Grazia), but their program soon identifies the links between the unsloved murders of a number of male students within a seven mile radius. Poletto sees the case as an opportunity to get his name on the map and sets Grazia the task of solving it.
Working references to computers and the internet into the plot seems to be the number one tactic in the quest to create a "modern" expression of the giallo -- Dario Argento's "The Card Player" being the most recent example. Every aspect of the plot of "Almost Blue" involves computers in some way: not only do the police identify the killer and work out his motive and psychological profile using their new software program, but the killer himself uses an internet chat room to find his next suitable victim while adopting the persona of the last one. Also monitoring the chat room and web-cams of some of their participants is a young blind man called Simone Martini (The Card Player's Claudio Santamaria). The troubled Martini leads a solitary existence: locked in his bedroom monitoring police radio broadcasts and listening in on internet-based chat lines. He soon realises that he has heard the voice of the murderer of one of the chat-line regulars, and contacts Grazia who decides to use him to identify the killer (who they have learned will be attending a club in his latest identity). Unfortunately, the bust goes wrong; Grazia earns the wrath of Poletto for bringing his techniques into disrepute in the ensuing media attention, and Martini becomes the target for the killer's next identity switch!
Despite its Manhunter/Red Dragon serial killer motif and gritty photographic style, "Almost Blue" is very much in the tradition of the Italian giallo and Infascelli's visual sense is blatantly informed as much by Argento and Riccardo Freda as it is by Aronofsky and David Fincher. It's the way these modern and traditional approaches have been mixed together that makes the film such a rewarding experience; in a lot of ways it's far more successful in this regard than "The Card Player"! Infascelli uses avant-garde trickery and daringly original strategies to keep the viewer off guard at all times; speeded up film and even subliminal images are occasionally used to disorientate. The best example of this occurs in one of the film's tensest and most stylish (almost Gothic) sequences: while Grazia searches a house where she suspects the killer is hiding, some diaphanous curtains suddenly flutter behind her, creating the illusion that someone is about to grab her from behind. Except... when I went back to examine this scene frame by frame, a hand can indeed clearly be seen on a few frames, quickly darting out from behind the curtain! Infascelli's quick cutting creates the illusion of an illusion! Another unusual idea comes in a cafe scene where the occupants of a student cafe are fixed in a pose, artificially suspending time in a simulated freeze-frame while the camera roams across their faces!
Coupled with this experimental approach are clear nods to the master: Dario Argento. Infascelli uses lots of high angle shots, off centre compositions and peripatetic camera moves which definitely bring the spirit of such giallo masterpieces as "Profondo Rosso" and "Tenebrae" to the movie. There are also some wonderful crane shots utilised throughout -- not least an amazing sequence right at the end which leads into the end credits: a long tracking shot closes in on a close-up of someone's eyes; the camera then pulls out to ascend to a birds eye view of the scene below, and then actually starts performing pirouettes in the sky as the credits role!
(Infascelli then ends on a Bava-style joke: as the camera floats away over the city of Bologna we see the film and rigging crew take a bow below!)
Also of note is some very entertaining and interesting use of POV -- where the camera takes the killer's point of view while he chats to a prospective female victim in her apartment (the film's most Tenebrae-like scene). This is actually my favourite scene in the film, although its tinged with the regret that, though it features the same mix of wit, originality and sheer brutality as has Argento's best work, the master himself has produced little that captures the same nervous energy in his most recent films! Infascelli's camera follows the naive young Buddhist student girl as she guides us (as the killer) on a tour of her candle-filled apartment. Although we always see things from the killer's perspective, Infascelli manipulates the soundtrack so that we alternatively hear - first - what the soon-to-be victim hears, and then what the killer hears. The contrast between the two works as both a blackly comic joke and also a foreshadowing of the coming violence that is soon to be visited upon the unsuspecting girl: while she chats away happily as soothing, ambient hippie music warbles away softly in the background of her apartment, the oblivious killer hears only the manic, pounding techno emanating from his headphones while he blankly watches the girl mouthing her inaudible niceties.
Music is very important to this film (which is named after a track from the Elvis Costello And The Attractions 1982 album "Imperial Bedroom"). Not only does the moody indie guitar scoring of the incidental music, and the occasional blast of hard-core techno, bring an edgy, brooding atmosphere to the film generally, but the Elvis Costello song of the title reflects the personality of the blind Simone Martini character. Martini -- who has been blind since an unspecified childhood accident -- seems to experience a sort of blind form of synaesthesia which leads him to attribute colours to voices. The killer's voice is perceived as green, while Inspector Negro's is summed up for Martini by the title song, which is also meant to represent the growing feelings between the two.
This is where the film flounders just a little; the relationship between Grazia and Simone is never really very believable and the love scene in which it culminates is, frankly, rather weird! Simone comes across as a bit of a shut-in: living life vicariously through the internet and his radio monitoring; he never leaves his bedroom and is looked after by his doting mother. It seems rather unlikely that there would be any great spark between him and the sophisticated and relatively streetwise Grazia -- at least not on her part! There is no real attempt to make the relationship convincing and the love scene comes out of nowhere with little emotional explanation. In fact, the end of the film, initially, comes across as rather incomplete and thus frustratingly anti-climatic after such a tense and well orchestrated build-up; it almost feels like we are missing a reel of film! But like many of Argento's more recent thrillers, the film definitely improves with repeat viewing and the sketchy characterisation and dangling plot points eventually start to feel like just a few more of its characteristic quirks! In anycase, to lovers of gialli, these flaws probably wont be seen as too serious a drawback ... in fact, they only add to the giallo flavour of the film!
Cecchi Gori Home Video's DVD presents us with a good but unspectacular 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Some of the grain in the picture is deliberate but there are minor scratches and marks on the film throughout it's running time. The extras are nothing to get excited about either: there are two scene selection menus, one dividing the film into 24 chapter stops, the other into six (which are meant to represent the film's top scenes apparently). Next we have the usual biographies of cast and crew (in Italian) and an Italian-language-only "making of" featurette which lasts only five minutes and is rather pointless!
Alex Infascelli's first film shows great promise. Start worring Argento... this boy could soon be knocking at your door!