Saturday, May 24, 2008

The House with Laughing Windows

Painter Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) is invited to a church in a run-down village in Italy's Po Valley to restore a fresco by the late Legnani, a local artist notorious for his degenerate lifestyle and descent into madness. The fresco depicts, in gruesome detail, the suffering of St Sebastian, and a graphic sepia-toned opening credits sequence suggests that it might have been painted more from life than from historical record.

Solmi (Bob Tonelli), the nattily dressed dwarf who serves as the mayor, views it as a significant work of art destined to put his town on the map; it is at the recommendation of Antonio (Guilio Pizzirani), a former colleague of Stefano's sojourning in the country during his recuperation from a nervous breakdown, that he engages Stefano to undertake the work.

Stefano arrives, however, to find Antonio spooked and jittery, dropping allusions to a horrific story behind Legnani's painting and rambling about a "house with laughing windows". Seemingly mistrustful of the townsfolk, he promptly clams up, promising to discuss things privately with Stefano later. Before this conversation can occur, Antonio is killed. The local police write it off as a suicide. Meanwhile, Stefano has begun receiving phone calls warning him away from the fresco; encouraging him to leave town.

Dedication to the work and a developing romance with fellow outsider Francesa (Francesca Marciano) - a schoolteacher transferred there from another town - persuade him to stay. When he is asked to leave his hotel room to make room for a large tour group - a reason he quickly discovers is a lie - he is offered a room by Lidio (Pietro Brambilla), an edgy young man who helps out at the church, at his mother's house: a rambling old building in the middle of nowhere.

Lidio isn't the only strange character Stefano meets: all of the villagers seem to be in on something dark and unspoken, from the police chief to the mayor's alcoholic driver Coppola (Gianni Cavina). Imagine the pastoral milieu of the Sicily-based scenes in 'The Godfather' repopulated with the residents of 'Twin Peaks', with perhaps a dash - in its final stretch - of 'The Wicker Man'; such is the atmosphere of Pupi Avati's slow-burn giallo 'The House with Laughing Windows'.

Disturbed by noises from the upper storeys when the only other resident is Lidio's bed-ridden mother, Stefano comes to the painfully slow conclusion that something is amiss.

Painfully slow is a criticism frequently levelled at the film as a whole, along with bland hero and weak ending. And I have to agree, to a greater or lesser degree, with all three brickbats. However ... the slow pacing is offset by the creepy atmosphere Avati conjures from the first frame and sustains effortlessly. Cinematography and canny choice of locations give the film a striking visual quality. There are any number of shots that could be clipped from the film as a single frame, enlarged, framed and hung on your wall as a piece of art, utterly compelling images even if divested of a narrative context.

The other criticisms aren't so easy to get round. Stefano ranks as one of the least pro-active characters in cinema history, wandering through the film like a narcoleptic. Capolicchio's performance doesn't help - you'd have to spend a week at a lumber yard to encounter something more wooden. The much-maligned ending, whilst conceptually appropriate, is arrived at by two plot devices that are clumsy at best and embarrassing at worst. They bely the 'artistic' quality Avati seems to be striving for.

'The House with Laughing Windows' (or 'La Casa dalla finestre che ridondo', to quote its indigenous title) thus occupies an uneasy middle ground between art film and genre film. The script leaves much unanswered, and while some of the resulting ambiguity is effective, the overall feeling is one of being sold ever slightly short. Still, it remains genuinely unsettling, and made yours truly jump more than once; Avati's direction is often stylish without being intrusive; it's not your typical giallo and is worth seeking out as one of the more cerebral examples of the genre; and the title's a belter.

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