La donna scimmia (The Ape Woman)
Posted by martinteller on January 14, 2015
Antonio Focaccia (Ugo Tognazzi) is scrounging around the kitchen of a nunnery one day, when he makes an interesting discovery. One of the nuns, Maria (Annie Girardot), is covered in hair, ape-like hair on her body and her face. She is shy and embarrassed and wants to be left alone, but Antonio “rescues” her from the convent… and proceeds to exploit her as a sideshow freak. Maria unwisely develops an affection for Antonio, but stands up for her dignity when he tries to rent her to a lecherous “scientist”. She returns to the convent, and only marriage will bring her back.
It was hard to decide how much plot summary to give, but it goes on from there in interesting directions. The movie never quite goes in the direction you think it will, and the characters are not easily shoehorned into easy boxes. Maria is both weak and strong, perhaps too easily swayed and suckered by Antonio, but also certain of herself and her own desires. Sometimes she reacts like someone who has known nothing but rejection and loneliness, but then she shows resolve at unexpected moments. And Antonio, well, he’s clearly an utter cad… or is he? He never tries to use Maria’s condition to belittle her. He pays back all the money he “borrows” from her. In some ways, he is definitely good for her. But he also exploits her. Sometimes we’re not sure just how much he exploits her. His feelings for her eventually take on tender dimensions, but how much of it is genuine and how much is protecting his meal ticket?
It concludes on a dark tone, yet one that still maintains some of this ambiguity about the characters (the US version reportedly has a much sunnier ending, but perhaps laced with irony). Maybe there is a satirical bent to these characters, still the performances ring with an unexpected genuineness. Girardot and Tognazzi are both fantastic, the former showing her humanity under all the hair, the latter showing his humanity under all the slime. Both would go on to work with director Marco Ferreri in some of his best films: Girardot in Dillinger is Dead and The Seed of Man, Tognazzi in La Grande Bouffe and The Man with the Balloons. This movie ranks among those as one of Ferreri’s finest creations.
The movie sports some excellent photography by Aldo Tonti (Nights of Cabiria) and a subtle score by Teo Usuelli. It’s not as surreal or inscrutable as certain other works by Ferreri, but it is an intriguing — and sometimes unexpectedly warm — study of human nature. Rating: Very Good (86)