This one is just goddamn weird, folks.
Gran Bollito (also known as Black Journal) is new on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, and it’s a bizarre little concoction that doesn’t fit into any easy genre category. Part costume drama, part dark comedy, part satire, part horror, Gran Bollito’s austere cinematography and design belies a wide-eyed freakfest that seems almost impossible to pin down.
The heavily-fictionalized film springs off from the true story of Leonarda Cianciulli, a notorious Italian serial killer also known as “The Soap-Maker of Correggio” for her particular disposal methods used on her victims.
A dubbed Shelley Winters plays ‘Lea’, who opens the film arriving at a decrepit living complex and complaining that the location feels cursed to her. Moments after arrival, her husband is struck down via stroke, seemingly confirming whatever bad omens Lea was sensing. Despite this setback, Lea quickly builds a life for herself in the complex and makes firm friends with some of the other women who live in the building.
Most of those women are played by men. I don’t know why. Gran Bollito is a sober period film directed by Mauro Bolognini, an acclaimed filmmaker known for his sober period films, and yet for some reason this film features Max von Sydow, Swedish GIANT, in wig, bra and pantyhose (von Sydow and the other men also have smaller, male roles, so it’s entirely possible that Bolognini is working on levels here that I just didn’t grasp in one viewing).
It’s a strange, distancing choice, especially in the early goings when the film could easily be mistaken for a slice-of-life depiction of pre-war melodrama. The discordant threads play a minor note in these early passages but gather steam as things progress and deteriorate along with Lea’s mental state.
Much of that deterioration is centered around Lea’s son, and the strange obsessive connection between them. We are told early on that Lea struggled to conceive and went through a decade of miscarriages and stillbirths, and we see how intensely she clings to him even though he has reached adulthood (some of the film’s most quietly distressing moments are the non-violent ones showcasing how intimate the relationship between Winters and her adult son truly is). So when war seems imminent and military service beckons, Lea hits upon the idea of sacrificing her neighbors (via meat cleaver) to Death in exchange for protecting her son.
The pathology of serial killers has entranced filmmakers for almost as long as films have been made. True crime stories have always fascinated humanity, as we’ve long struggled to somehow understand and describe those among us who are warped past anything recognizably human. How can you make sense out of the senseless? Ancient cultures told each other stories about men who transformed into beasts, of disembodied evil that possessed you and drove you to commit terrible crimes. And it’s something we still struggle to depict. Some filmmakers make much use of the language of analysis and psychology, while other portraits of crime and madness still lean into every salacious, gory detail.
Bolognini makes the choice to never let us into Lea’s mind. We never see the moment when she cracks (in fact, I thought the movie implied a couple times that she had done this kind of thing a few times before, but the real Leonarda Cianciulli apparently had no history of violence before the part of her life with a lot of fucking violence in it) and we never see the thought process that leads her to butcher her supposed friends.
Instead, Bolognini tries to capture the mood of the time. The Italy of Gran Bollito is bleak and washed out, landscapes of black and grey punctuated only with flashes of bold red in dresses and blood. Most characters move through that landscape with mournful, downcast expressions, lamenting the lives they’d once had and the dreams they never quite achieved.
Barreling through all this is Winters, half the size of the others in the cast but with ten times the intensity. Winters was no stranger to going BIG, and in Gran Bollito she gives an almost proto-Nic Cage performance. You know how in movies like Bad Lieutenant, Cage isn’t going FULL CAGE all the time, but is instead this constantly bubbling cauldron of potential madness that you know is going to pop and the fun of any given scene is wondering who/what is going to make him go boom? That’s Winters in this film, as every placid interaction is underlined with the tension that she might haul off and bury a cleaver into the side of some unwitting person’s face.
I also got kind of Pan’s Labyrinth vibes from this film at times, not so much because of any specific content but just from the way both films use an intimate setting and intimate violence as a stand-in for larger conflicts. Lea ultimately laughs off her crimes, sneering that compared to the war machine that is gearing up to grind a generation into paste, her own actions were child’s play (this is actually quite similar to the iconic climax to Charlie Chaplin’s black-hearted Monsieur Verdoux). And in showing people squabble and spat while the world prepares to burn, Gran Bollito also captures some of the striking power of the great Cabaret.
Ultimately, I don’t think Gran Bollito ever becomes a must-watch, but it’s a truly unique little picture that has really grown on me the further I’ve gotten from it and the more I’ve thought about it. It might must cast a similar spell on you.