Counter-culture photographer and all-round party girl Valentina Rosselli (Isabelle De Funès) gets more than she bargained for when, walking home through the streets of Milan in the wee hours, she narrowly avoids colliding with a speeding limousine. The driver, a mysterious woman who identifies herself as Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker), insists on driving the ruffled Valentina home, whereupon she swipes the poor girl’s garter clip and promises that they will meet again. The following day, Valentina’s photography session with a buxom model is interrupted by the arrival of the venerable hag, who comes on to her with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, puts a hex on her camera and insists that Valentina return the favour by paying a visit to her mansion. Thereon, things get progressively weirder as our intrepid heroine plunges head first into a nightmare cocktail of psychosis, sapphism and S&M.
Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga is one of those films that could only have come out of Italy in the 1970s. It’s not quite trash and not quite art, nor is it particularly successful on the whole. It is, however, rather interesting, mainly because it’s so charmingly batty, its eclectic mix of horror, naive political posturing and soft-core eroticism somehow perfectly summing up the era in which it was made. The plot itself is a fairly loose adaptation of a series of adult fumetti (graphic novels) written and illustrated by Italian comic artist Guido Crepax. Entitled Valentina, they focused on the darkly erotic and often sadomasochistic dreams of the titular character, a young woman whose hallucination and fantasies blended with reality to the extent that what was real and what wasn't became indistinguishable. Baba Yaga herself originates from Russian fairytales: a cannibalistic witch who lives in a hut in the woods and controls the cycle of nature. Transported into modern day Milan, she becomes a decadent lesbian, living in a crumbling mansion with a great big hole in the middle of the hallway and breaking the speed limit as she cruises the streets of the city in the dead of night with her improbably fluffy cat in tow.
The vast majority of cinematic adaptations of comic books were at the time lacklustre, with Farina singling out Roger Vadim’s disappointingly prudish Barbarella as particularly lamentable. Baba Yaga’s greatest strength, therefore, is that Farina is clearly in love with and believes in the source material. He worked hard to convey its ephemeral and surreal nature, both in the blending of dreams with reality and in his use of the camera, which is intended to evoke the panels of a comic book. This is fairly subtle, and only really comes through in a particularly significant way in the sex scene between De Funès and male lead George Eastman, where the use of fragmented and largely static shots (including some still photographs) evokes Crepax’s panels quite successfully. (This, incidentally, follows a very odd scene in which the pair read one of Crepax’s Valentina books, breaking the fourth wall.)
Unfortunately, I can’t help feeling that the casting choices rather scupper the tone that Crepax was going for. As it turns out, Farina wanted Elsa Martinelli for the role of Valentina and Anne Heywood for Baba Yaga. The latter backed out at the last minute, going as far as to pay a fine for breaking her contract, and was replaced by Carroll Baker, who proved herself to have the professionalism Heywood lacked. Unfortunately, as Farina himself readily admits, she’s all wrong for the role physically, lacking the androgynous qualities of the character depicted by Crepax and most of the time coming across simply as a healthy middle-aged woman wearing a lot of pale make-up. As for Valentina, the scrawny, bug-eyed De Funès, chosen by the French co-financiers, is a far cry from the voluptuous figure of Crepax’s fumetti, but she’s actually quite good in the role, and her bowl cut helps make the illusion complete. By far the biggest problem is George Eastman, playing filmmaker Arno Treves, who in fact didn’t appear in Valentina but was parachuted in from another Crepax series. Best known for his spaghetti western and action thriller roles, he doesn’t fare well in this rather bland role which effectively has him playing the straight man to the psychotic madness unfolding around him. His inclusion is ultimately fairly pointless, and I can’t help thinking this otherwise surreal film would have worked better without his presence constantly bringing it crashing back down to earth.
And, of course, there’s always that nagging feeling that the film isn’t quite as avant-garde and enlightened as it thinks it is. At its heart is the overused “evil old lesbian as witch” motif, with the depraved Baba Yaga setting out to corrupt the purity of Valentina, who ends up having to be rescued by burly George Eastman. The film continually references the ongoing political and social turmoil that engulfed Italy in the early 1970s without ever really saying anything meaningful about it. This clash between contemporary politics and the age-old Baba Yaga myth is actually quite a good idea in theory, but it’s ultimately underdeveloped, and I suspect Farina may have tried to cram too much into the fairly concise running time. (Valentina was later adapted again in the late 80s, as a longer TV serial starring former gymnast Demetra Hampton, and can’t help thinking that this format is more suited to the concept.)
It’s difficult to make any claim for Baba Yaga as something particularly noteworthy or even particularly good, but it’s safe to say there’s nothing else quite like it in cinema. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a fan of this film, in spite of its flaws. So, trash or art? As is so often the case with Italian popular cinema from this period, the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Even if it’s no classic, it is at the very least a one-of-a-kind experience.
The Final Cut
Baba Yaga’s history is nothing if not complicated. Back in 1973, director Corrado Farina signed off on the film after completing the editing process and took a much-needed holiday. He returned to discover that, behind his back, the producer had screened the final cut for a test audience and, responding to feedback that it was too long, gone back and re-cut the original negative, removing and shortening several scenes. The fact that much of the missing material was of a radical nature has led many to suspect that these actions were at least partly politically motivated. After a public slagging from Farina, the studio handed the ruined negative back to the director, allowing him to perform a patchwork repair job, returning it as close as possible to his intended vision without being able to reinstate the missing footage. In addition, the film censorship board demanded the removal of two instances of full frontal nudity from Isabelle De Funès and Carroll Baker.
When US-based DVD label Blue Underground released the film in 2003, they presented it in the form of this theatrical cut, providing the excised materials separately in the form of a series of deleted scenes sourced from Farina’s own personal archive, suffering from poor image quality. Although the rest of the film looked fairly good, the fact that it was incomplete made this a compromised presentation to say the least.
For this 2009 release from UK-based Shameless Screen Entertainment, the film has been re-cut by Farina himself, returning the majority of the deleted materials to their rightful locations, most notably with a politically driven pre-credits graveyard sequence, of which the chances of being warmly received in the USA are about nil. Most of the other material that was deleted either underscores the lesbian elements or can simply be seen as padding. The two censor-mandated full frontal nudity cuts have also been restored. It would be unfair to claim that the reinstating of these scenes turns a flawed film into a masterpiece, but they do make the film slightly more cohesive as a whole, and lead to certain scene transitions seeming a little less jarring.
Baba Yaga is presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and broadly speaking the image quality of this release from Shameless is comparable to that of Blue Underground’s 2003 edition – indeed, both seem to have come from the same source. Detail levels are reasonable if not particularly outstanding, and the image does have a rather processed look but is overall pretty watchable. Of course, as mentioned above, the original negative was hacked to pieces by the film’s producer, meaning that the moments that were removed had to be sourced from Corrado Farina’s own personal archive copy. The quality of these moments is unavoidably poor, although they undoubtedly look better than they did on the Blue Underground DVD.
Unfortunately, and rather distractingly, there are a number of instances throughout the film in which entire frames appear to have been dropped, creating an annoying “jolting” effect, most noticeable in panning shots. The Blue Underground DVD was unaffected by this issue.
By offering both English and Italian audio tracks (both the original mono), along with English subtitles, Shameless have scored a slam dunk against Blue Underground, who only provided the former and neglected to include subtitles. Although the English dub is far from the worst I’ve heard on a Euro-cult title, the Italian track is more satisfying overall, particularly where the actual dialogue is concerned. Take, for instance, this exchange in the English dub:
“I want to photograph you nude in a field of wheat.”The subtitles translate the Italian dialogue as:
“Okay, we’ll talk about it. Thanks for the chicken.”
“I want to take a picture of you: naked in a corn field.”Neither version is exactly verbal poetry, but, while the latter is bearable, the former makes you want to hide your head in your hands. Then again, I’m sure it can be argued that the absurdity of some of the English dialogue adds to the film’s batty atmosphere. Note that, as the restored materials were never dubbed into English, they are presented in Italian with English subtitles even on the English audio track.
“Okay. Let’s talk about it in the summer.”
With all that said, the sound quality was undoubtedly better on the Blue Underground disc. The English track, on Shameless’ release, suffers from some interference, as well as semi-frequent pops and jolts. These are particularly noticeable during extended stretches of Piero Umiliani’s music, and sound almost as if tiny snippets of the audio track are missing – rather like the jolts that affect the image. The Italian track is unaffected, but at the same time is noticeably flatter and more constrained, so it’s essentially a case of “pick your poison”.
Baba Yaga was one of Blue Underground’s less extravagant releases, although the label still managed to pack in some added-value content, including an interview with Farina and one of the director’s documentary shorts. For this UK release, Shameless have come up trumps and delivered a plethora of bonus features.
The first of these is a fact track provided by the knowledgeable Wilson Bros. Although described on the menu screen as a “commentary track”, it is in fact text-based in nature, which proves to be both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it allows you to listen to the film’s audio uninterrupted and “read along”, and a curse because the lengthy nature of the sentences, often spread out over several screens of text, can require a bit of rewinding to ensure that you’ve properly understood what you’ve just read. Alternating between providing factual details, praising the film and gently mocking it, the track manages to be both entertaining and informative, although personally I found myself wishing I could have actually heard the Wilson Bros. discussing the film rather than reading their comments in what is ultimately a rather fragmented form. Some grammatical errors and an errant timecode (!) aside, though, this is an enjoyable and rather neat take on the dreaded “trivia track”.
Corrado Farina himself pops up twice on the disc, first to provide a very brief introduction before the film starts, and secondly in a longer interview. This piece, which runs for just under 20 minutes, duplicates some of the information from the similar interview on the Blue Underground DVD, but is an excellent piece in its own right, thanks mainly to Farina’s honesty as regards the film. He is perfectly willing to hold up his hands and admit mistakes he made or moments where external factors prevented his vision from being fulfilled, but clearly looks back on the film fondly. He also discusses the film’s rocky history at the hands of its producer, and discusses what has been reinserted and also what has been left out for this new release, explaining his choices in each case. Farina speaks in Italian with English subtitles, the latter suffering from some spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.
Two short documentaries directed by Farina are also provided. The first, Freud & Fumetti, is duplicated from the Blue Underground DVD. It gives a brief overview of the history of comics in Italy and their impact on society, before moving on to specifically discuss the work of Crepax, his influences and the specifics of his style. Second is Fumettophobia, never before released on DVD and once again focusing on fumetti, this time tackling antipathy towards comics and attempting to counter prevailing misconceptions of them being juvenile and a waste of time. While the content itself is interesting, the presentation is marred by a burned-in “S” (for “Shameless”) in the corner throughout the entire feature.
The film’s original theatrical trailer, a gallery or rather poor quality images, and a selection of trailers for other Shameless releases complete the package.
What transpired in 1973 means that any presentation of Baba Yaga was always going to be severely compromised. As such, Shameless are to be commended for taking the time and trouble to involve Corrado Farina and attempt to restore the film to its intended state. The audio-visual shortcomings of this release mean that those who already own the Blue Underground DVD are going to want to hold on to that version, but this new version represents a valiant effort to bring the film closer to how it was originally meant to be seen. As such, and for the insightful new bonus features, this release gets a thumbs up from me.