"Footprints" (Le orme) is one of those films you always hope you'll stumble on from time to time, but in practice so rarely do: a discreet, rather low-key and up to now semi-lost (whisper it) masterpiece that hardly anyone appears to have ever seen, and only rarely gets a mention in the annals of cult cinema. After so many years during which it seemed just about every piece of minor eurocult jetsam that is out there had already been dredged up and raked over on DVD (usually multiple times), leaving us with only the dregs now to paw at disconsolately, the chances of suddenly being presented with a slice of mid-Seventies Italian cinema that is, without exaggeration, required viewing for anyone who has ever swooned to the visual lustre of Argento in his prime -- or, indeed, any of the only-recently- acknowledged classics of the Giallo genre -- seemed so remote as to be a laughably unrealistic prospect. Yet that is apparently exactly what we have here, thanks once again to those astute folks at Shameless.
'Giallo' is probably a fair label to apply here, though, it has to be said, this is not a traditional film of that sub-genre; it has few of the standard, more obvious ingredients of the many generic (often only ironically entertaining in a 'retro' way) pulp mystery thrillers that filled Italian cinema screens after the success of Dario Argento's first groundbreaking films. No elaborate stalking scenes or razor-flashing psycho-sexual maniacs in black leather gloves here. The lurid sex and violence and even more brazen garishness that flowed from the then trendy contemporary '70s Italian fashions and furnishings in which these gialli were often so liberally clad, are also nowhere to be found. The film's director, Luigi Bazzoni, had already directed one of the better and more serious Argento influenced clones, "The Fifth Cord", in 1971, and must have felt no need to repeat the performance.
Instead, he comes closer here to approaching the territory inhabited by those few off the wall works such as "The Short Night of Glass Dolls" and "The Perfume of the Lady in Black", dwelling in the paranoid landscape of Sergio Martino's "All the Colours of the Dark" but alluding to those more leisurely-paced, rather sombre thrillers where ambience and mood take precedence over gymnastic plot convulsions and suspenseful, dynamically shot murder sequences usually associated with the Italian giallo. If one has to compare "Footprints" at all, one would be better employed looking at some other films from around the same era, such as Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now", Robert Altman's "Images", or maybe Roman Polanski's films "Repulsion" and "The Tenant" -- these are the references that more accurately indicate something of the doom-laden flavour of Bazzoni's strange film.
As was also the case on "The Fifth Cord", the director works here with "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and in foreshadowing the sort of grand cinematic spectacle which would later gain him world-wide recognition in films with Francis Ford Coppola ("Apocalypse Now") and Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Last Emperor"), "Footprints" comes closer than most other Italian horror/thrillers before or since, to reproducing that knack Argento once held for invoking a sense of mystery in the architecture and landscapes in which the characters are left to roam, even though they often seem curiously removed from their actual surroundings. The locations, be they exterior or interior, are as important to this film as the performance by lead actress, Florinda Bolkan (who had already appeared in minor but memorable roles in two of Lucio Fulci's finest films, the gialli "Lizard in a Woman's Skin" and "Don't Torture a Duckling", but simply outdoes herself here in a performance that takes over from her role in "Flavia the Heretic" as the actress's career best) for establishing the film's alluring but pensive atmosphere, and fleshing out the brooding dreamlike nature at its core.
Bazzoni's stately camera moves and his feel for composition are certainly important -- the film is nothing if not a catalogue of arresting visual tableaux -- but it is Storaro's stylish work that appears to give the film its unique tonal texture. The use of light and shadow is subtle but always noticeable, the shifting tones of day and evening light -- sun-harsh and clinical in Bolkan's sterile, whitewashed apartment (shades of Kubrick's "The Shining" here); shadowy and tinged with the twilight haze of dusk in the interiors of the ornate island villa, where her journey eventually reaches its climax -- becoming more and more identifiable with the disintegrating psyche of the film's isolated protagonist as the film progresses.
The plot is certainly slight, being in many ways merely a springboard for launching the existential odyssey that drives Florinda Bolkan's character, Alice Cespi. This Christian name was probably not casually chosen either. The reference to "Alice in Wonderland" seems apt, but if this Alice also slips down a metaphorical rabbit hole into a world she no longer recognises, it is closer to the menacing fugue state that afflicts Laura Dern in "Inland Empire" or Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts in "Mulholland Drive" than any more obviously surreal dreamscape.
Caspi is an interpreter employed by an agency to translate at prestigious international conferences. She's hooked on tranquillisers and tormented by a weird dream that plays like an old black and white Sci-Fi film starring Klaus Kinski (which is exactly what it appears to be!) in which Kinski's character, Professor Blackman, deliberately leaves an astronaut stranded on the moon as part of some sort of unspecified amoral experiment. She wakes one morning from one of these dreams to find three days have elapsed, disappeared without trace, and that she has no memory of anything that has occurred during the missing time. There is a mysterious bright yellow dress she has never seen before in her closet (entirely out of place next to her usual bland beige wear); a torn postcard on the floor of her kitchen shows an old-fashioned, tree-fronted, baroque hotel in the town of Garma, a little known one-time tourist spot on a small island in the Adriatic.
The dream has the flavour of an old film that she remembers once scared her as a child, its images connected with events that may have been long ago pushed into the realm of the unconscious. Sacked from her job for apparently behaving in an unprofessional manner during her three day bout of amnesia, Alice is drawn to the island, looking for answers; but only even more mystery awaits her.
She finds the off-season hotel dim and dilapidated, only one other family still living among the now-faded gilt-edged opulence. These few guests seem to eye her with a weary suspicion, as though they already somehow recognise her. A former acquaintance she encounters outside casually mentions having seen her on the island the previous Tuesday, even though she has only just arrived the day before. Exploring the picturesque ruins and the unique landscape around the beach she encounters an elfin, red-haired little girl with freckles, who addresses her using the name 'Nicole'. At first the girl says her own name is Mary, but later Alice finds out her real name is Paola Bersel. She's played by the child actress Nicoletta Elmi --reason enough for all Giallo fans to rejoice: Elmi specialised in playing weird, sometime malevolent little girls in Italian films of the period, most notably some of the bona fide classics by luminaries of the genre, Mario Bava and Dario Argento.
Here she seems to be the (perhaps, imaginary) key to unlocking suppressed memories of a previous time Alice might have spent on the island under another identity. Paola tells Alice that she looks like a red-haired woman in a yellow dress (the aforementioned Nicole) who told her she was being pursued by mysterious assailants who wanted to harm her and that she was on the run and hiding from them. A handsome biologist (Peter McEnery) takes an interest in Alice, but although he claims never to have seen her before, Alice is not so sure. What is he really up to? The nightmares take a menacing turn and start to invade her waking reality, spectral astronauts from her dream pursuing her across the island's lunar-like beach landscape. When she awakes in a crumbling villa deep in the woods, memories and fantasy collide and eventually result in a desperate act of violence.
Like David Lynch's recent work, the fungibility of identity and the transience of memory are the main themes here; but as is often the case with Lynch's films, there is no obvious absolute interpretation to be taken away from it all. What is real and what is imaginary can be reconstructed in many different ways. The cinematography and the use of architecture bring Argento's stylishness in "Deep Red and "Suspiria" to mind on many occasions, a stained-glass peacock mural hidden in the dark recesses of the old villa encountered at the end of the film (and which plays a pivotal part in the plot) could even have come straight out of the curtained-off witches' sanctum at the Tanz Academy.
Though the story may seem trifling (in truth, not a great deal happens, and this may well put a few viewers off if they're constantly waiting for a string of murders to take place that will be solved with traditional deductive techniques at the end) the visuals are what really tell the story and create the atmosphere, and ultimately they are what sell the film as the mini-masterpiece it deserves to appreciated as. Nicola Piovani's music is a pitch perfect example of the typical Morricone/Nicolai influenced semi lounge stylings that form the mainstay of Italian thriller scores in the '70s, with the occasional Bach-like organ cues adding the necessary gravitas in key scenes. The Sci-Fi element is a real oddity. It makes up only a brief few minutes of the over-all running time, but plays like it has been integrated from a completely different film, a very young-looking Klaus Kinski hamming it up in a frivolous black and white genre piece that seems severely at odds with the slow-burning tragic beauty of the rest of the film.
This is definitely one to savour and a film to which I know I will be returning on many occasions in the future. Shameless, despite this once-lost film looking nowhere near as good as one would like it to given its visual splendour, have done a magnificent job of resurrecting a gem of a movie. Like many of their titles this is a composite print, a largely English language dub which has the short Italian dialogue scenes excised from the International version reinstated with added English subtitles. Unfortunately they are in nowhere near as good shape as the main body of the film (and a few of them have no soundtrack at all), but thankfully these added sequences are very short and infrequent and don't ruin the atmosphere of the film too much. For the most part the transfer looks okay, if slightly on the faded side.
After being spoiled with extras on recent Shameless releases, we're left with only a few minor bits and pieces on this title: alternative English opening credits, theatrical trailer, US video trailer and an image gallery accompany the 20 trailers that make up the Shameless Collection. The fact is though, if you like Italian eurocult cinema at all, you simply have to see this film, and at the moment this is the best way to do so.