Reflections of Light/Reflessi di Luce (1988/2009) **
You’ll have to forgive me if this review seems a little pointless and disengaged. Reflections of Light is both of those things itself, and it’s going to be rather a challenge to say anything of very much interest about it. A softcore sex melodrama from the days of Italian exploitation cinema’s rapid decline into international irrelevancy, Reflections of Light serves mainly to complete the picture of how thoroughly the industry had lost its way by the late 1980’s.
Federico Brandi (Gabriele Tinti, from Black Cobra and The Crawlers) is a pianist and composer whose life has been pretty securely in the toilet for the past year, ever since the death of his wife, Chiara (played in flashback by Laura Gemser, of Ator, the Fighting Eagle and The Alcove). The story behind Chiara’s demise won’t emerge until nearly the end of the film, but Federico’s confinement to a wheelchair would naturally be taken to imply a traffic accident or some such thing. Note, however, that that seemingly obvious inference would be flat wrong. Chiara drowned in a lake right after she and her husband had finished fucking in an abandoned barn, and we never do find out what became of Federico’s legs. Brandi hasn’t written much of anything since that day. He just tinkers inconclusively with a piece that conveniently doubles as Reflections of Light’s main title theme, and essentially pays his man-hating, lesbian live-in secretary, Giorgia (Loredana Romito, of Midnight Killer and Fatal Temptation), to lounge around by the backyard swimming pool in what would then have been considered an extremely small bikini. His twenty-ish son, Marcello (Gabriele Gori, from Convent of Sinners and Bronx Executioner), is practicing hard to become a professional jockey, but Federico doesn’t give a shit about that. In fact, he actively discourages Marcello’s ambitions, sourly proclaiming that the world has no place for dreamers whenever the subject comes up. Brandi also writes a lot of sullen letters to his old friend, Lorenzo, but never bothers to send any of them. In between scribbling those go-nowhere missives, carping at his son, and wasting his secretary’s time, Federico’s main occupations are reminiscing bitterly about the day Chiara died, and wishing she could be with him once more.
That being so, it’s rather mystifying that Brandi has remarried, but indeed that’s just what he did. Federico’s new wife, Marta (Pamela Prati, from Ironmaster and Transformations), is closer to Marcello’s age than to his, and strikingly embodies virtually every questionable idea about feminine beauty that was current in 1988. And of course Federico treats Marta just as badly as he does Marcello, alternately ignoring her and coercing her into violent, selfish, loveless, unsatisfying sex. Giorgia has noticed the new Mrs. Brandi’s plight, and she’d like very much to relieve her of it. Marta says she wants nothing of the kind, but mixes her signals like a goddamned Cuisinart. Basically, Giorgia has an easy enough time getting Marta into bed with her, but no luck at all getting her to stay there long enough for it to go anywhere. In any case, it’s obvious that Marta would rather slake her thirst for affection by being the best possible stepmother to Marcello, offering him all the support and encouragement that Federico grouchily refuses to.
Then one day, Marcello gets a girlfriend. Actually, this is of surprisingly little consequence, but at least it means that something happens to interrupt the cycle of moping, shouting, belittling, crying, and abortive lesbianism that accounts for far too much of the movie thus far. Marcello is out riding when he has a near-collision with a fool on a dirt bike. Still on horseback, he chases the biker into a stretch of badly rutted ground to induce a wipeout, at which point he discovers that his tormentor is a cute blonde girl named Gaia (Jessica Moore, from The Ghosts of Sodom and Moon of Blood), who is much less tragically 80’s than either Marta or Giorgia. As romantic introductions on the “argue until they like each other” model go, this one isn’t too obnoxious. Afterward, Gaia starts hanging around the Brandi property a lot, spending nearly every afternoon watching Marcello practice for his upcoming debut race.
Marcello ends up performing remarkably well, coming in second despite both his and his horse’s lack of experience. Marta is the only representative of his family or friends there to see it, however. Federico has some trouble getting around outside the house, obviously, but he also refused to come to the track on principle— which is to say, the principle of being a dick. Gaia didn’t attend because Marcello expressly forbade her to; Dad’s relentless negativism had finally gotten to him, and as a Latin man, he couldn’t bear the thought of his new girlfriend witnessing his “inevitable” public humiliation. And Giorgia… Well, she had a plot point to set up. You see, when Marcello comes within an ace of winning a contest that even he had begun to believe was light years beyond his abilities, he and Marta get so fired up that they spend the rest of the day out together in celebration. Giorgia, jealous, suspicious, and possessive enough for the entire cast put together, spends all those hours imagining Marcello and Marta making love on Federico’s boat. When they do finally return, Giorgia blackmails Marta into submitting to an affair with her by threatening to tell Federico what she believes his wife and son got up to on the afternoon following the race. Marcello catches the two women in bed together shortly thereafter, and then Federico catches Marcello and Marta in the aftermath of a slap-fight— which looks suspiciously like the aftermath of something else, if you follow me. It’s going to take either a hell of a lot of work or a hell of a lot of bullshit to pull a happy ending out of this one. Would you care to guess which of those two options writer Francesco Valitutti pursues?
To me, the sad thing is not that the Italian exploitation film industry basically withered up and died during the late 80’s and early 90’s. The sad thing is that it deserved to. Italy’s horror, sci-fi, fantasy, sex, and action movies had rarely been good during the postwar era, at least not in the ways most film fans are accustomed to defining “good.” But for the 30 years following the release of The Devil’s Commandment and Hercules, they almost always displayed a certain mad inventiveness, even when they were transparently made to cash in on some other, more reputable picture. And crucially, from the mid-50’s through the late 60’s, the more reputable pictures being copied were not infrequently Italian productions themselves. Spaghetti Westerns were noticeably unlike the American Westerns that inspired them. Italian sword-and-sandal movies were noticeably unlike the 1950’s Biblical epics that were their nearest Hollywood kin. 60’s Italian neo-gothics can never be mistaken for Hammer neo-gothics; gialli can never be mistaken for English-speaking psycho-horror; the space operas of Antonio Margheriti and Pietro Francisci can never be mistaken for their limp and weedy American counterparts from the early-60’s fallow years. And the Mondo movies were like absolutely nothing else on Earth in their heyday. Even in the 70’s and early 80’s, when it became easier to link whole Italian subgenres to specific international hits, the Italian versions retained a distinct and appealing (if often ineptly appealing) flavor. Italy’s answers to Dirty Harry, The Devils, The Exorcist, Emmanuelle, Jaws, Star Wars, Dawn of the Dead, The Road Warrior, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are simply addictive in ways that cheap copies have no earthly business being. Something went missing after about 1986, though, and I don’t mean merely the last of the single-screen independent theaters whose voracious appetite for product had created the export market for such movies in the first place. Even controlling for a shrinking customer base, and for increasingly censorious cultural climates in the places abroad where their movies had traditionally made the most money, Italy’s exploitationeers just plain lost their old knack for turning shamelessly disposable crap into something compelling and exciting. I think what it really comes down to is that they were finally defeated by a hidden weakness in their business model. By the 80’s, Italian schlockmeisters had become almost completely dependent on ideas from outside their own industry. Show them a groundbreaking big-ass blockbuster, and they could have a half-priced Bizarro World version of it ready to shoot in a month and a half, but they had rendered themselves helpless without a template to copy, and there are only so many times anyone can productively rehash the same dozen successful formulas. Meanwhile, Hollywood in the late 80’s had committed itself to being its own rip-off machine. Think about all the numerals after titles in those years, and ask yourself how wide an ecological niche there could be for people making rip-offs of Lethal Weapon 3 or A Nightmare on Elm Street 5.
That brings us to the main problem with Reflections of Light specifically: this movie could just as well have been made in 1978 as 1988, and everyone involved in its creation seems to realize that. Laura Gemser would have played Marta instead of Chiara, and everyone’s hair would have been a lot smaller, but otherwise the only thing that ten whole years have added to the template is an air of dispiritedness and defeat. The maddening part is that this honestly isn’t that bad a film. Gabriele Tinti was an old pro at this sort of thing by the late 80’s, and his self-assured performance gives Reflections of Light a sturdy foundation for some dubious dialogue and a plot that hinges almost solely upon people implausibly putting the worst possible interpretation on everything that happens to them ever. Pamela Prati seems genuinely uncomfortable in all of her sex scenes with Loredana Romito, which rings true to the relationship between their characters even if it does compromise the movie’s effectiveness as pornography. And Reflections of Light is maybe the only Italian trash flick I’ve seen from this era in which it looks like the producers managed to come up with an adequate amount of money for the job. This vein was mined out, though, and it was well past time to sink a new shaft someplace else.