Review: Anima persa [1977]

Dir. Dino Risi

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Vittorio Gassman, Danilo Mattei, Anicée Alvina

A naive young man studying art in Venice comes to stay with distant relatives, an elderly uncle (Gassman) and a somewhat younger aunt (Deneuve). In "Jane Eyre" fashion he educes that his uncle is apparently keeping his deranged brother in a secret room in an attic. His curiosity is piqued and he begins to investigate with his new artist model/girlfriend (Anicée Alvina), and quickly unearths that all is not as it seems with his mysterious relatives.

This Italian-French co-production is frequently associated with the giallo genre of the time, but the Italian setting is pretty much where the similarity ends. This film is very much a big-budget, art-house production very much in the vein of Nic Roeg's "Don't Look Now", with a stunning Venetian setting, big-name actors of the time Vittorio Gassman and Catherine Deneuve, and a director who had just completed the internationally successful "Profuma di Donna" (the original Italian version of "Scent of a Woman" which also featured Gassman). Unlike it's giallo brethren it has a plot that makes sense and develops slowly and subtly throughout the film.

Anima persa bears a passing resemblance to the Spanish classic "The House That Screamed" with it's gothic horror styling and lavish production values, and while the script can stray into extremes at times, on the whole it pulls off it's art-house leanings with aplomb. The film's pacing is languid but persistent, and director Dino Riso keeps things interesting thanks to the tension that exists between the three central characters. Contrary to the pace of the film, the first twist is revealed very early as we discover the identity of the person living in the 'forbidden room' upstairs, but the film has much more than that easy reveal to divest and the revelations get more convoluted and insistent as the film progresses.

Anima persa is bolstered by a trio of great performances from its lead stars. Vittorio Gassman is excellent as the imposing and at times vicious uncle, while the classically beautiful Catherine Deneuve is convincing as the melancholy aunt. The central cast is rounded off by Danilo Mattei, who is competent in the lead role but at times is overwhelmed by the power and depth of the other two more experienced performers. The atmosphere of the film is fantastic and without doubt one of it's strongest elements; the house in which everything takes place cuts an imposing figure and provides within it's crumbling majesty a suitable metaphor for the crumbling relationship of the dissolute couple. The final twist does become obvious just before it happens, but the film keeps it's cards close to it's chest up until that point, leaving you satisfied and maybe a little breathless with the final reveal.

I can't recommend this film enough, both to genre fans and to fans of classic cinema too, find it, buy it and savour the visuals and visceral performances repeatedly, you will be glad you did and, much like me, have a need to share this rare masterpiece with as many people as you can.

Review copy kindly supplied by

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