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The Possessed

* * * * -

Subtle Italian chiller is lean, moody, and arthouse beautiful.

Image of The Possessed

Luigi Bazzoni, Franco Rossellini/ Italy/ 1965/ 88 mins

Available on Blu-ray now.

It seems as if Arrow Video are performing an extensive excavation through the entirety of Italian genre cinema at present.  Every month sees further releases of obscure and almost-forgotten thrillers, chillers and slashers.  Not all are worthy of such reverential and loving treatment, but quite often their cinematic panhandling will uncover a gorgeous nugget of a film that really demands attention.  One of these is The Possessed, a lean and moody near-masterpiece of pure atmosphere.

Bernard (Peter Baldwin), a depressed novelist, escapes from the city to a remote lakeside village.  He hopes to reconnect with Tilde (Virna Lisi), a beautiful maid who works at a hotel at which he has previously stayed.  The smitten writer is discomfited to discover she seems to have disappeared.  When he investigates he uncovers a disturbing truth about Tilde and the family who own the hotel.

Arrow release this Blu-ray edition of The Possessed on the same day as another of Bazzoni’s films, The Fifth Cord.  The two films, while both are ostensibly crime dramas, couldn’t be more different in their approach.  The Fifth Cord arrived in the great Giallo rush that occurred in the wake of Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.   The Possessed is a dreamy, meditative work that feels more like classic film noir filtered through a European arthouse sensibility.

Bernard’s weary, doom-laden voiceover will be instantly familiar to fans of hard-bitten gumshoe narratives, and the air of eerie mystery is distinctly Hitchcockian.  Leonida Barboni‘s beautiful, crisp black-and-white photography evokes the doleful mood of Antonioni at his most existential; while the high-contrast nightmare sequences bring to mind similar imagery in Bergman‘s Wild Strawberries with the attendant sense of desolation from Winter Light.  Lofty achievements for a small Italian genre flick.

The Possessed makes the most of the limited scope of its story.  The small-scale mystery is augmented by small-town secrecy and suspicion and asks questions about the limits of memory and the insidious Iago whisper of mental illness.  When Bernard comes down with a flu-like illness, his existing depression feeds a rising paranoia that he’s being poisoned by his hosts.  This ties in with his concern that it’s become increasingly difficult to separate his dreams from his reality.

A ghost story without any ghosts, The Possessed is about a different kind of haunting.  Although considered a kind of proto-Giallo, it lacks all the garish excesses that have come to characterise that teeming and unruly sub-genre.  The acting is more naturalistic, and the rare onscreen violence is depicted with restraint.  Baldwin does well as a protagonist brooding and jaded enough to have wandered onscreen from a Camus novel, and Lisi as the enigmatic Tilde is used sparingly and effectively.  It’s a Spartan little movie that impresses through mood and technique rather than thrills.  It rather rushes its climax despite taking pains to slowly build suspense, but The Possessed is otherwise a wonderfully chilly, subdued drama.