Venice in Film : Anima Persa

The great Dino Risi was a director more associated with commedia all’italiana than with the horror film And yet, in 1977, he made a deeply serious and effective piece of pure Venetian Gothic. Anima Persa (known elsewhere under the clunkingly literal title of The Forbidden Room) seems to be little known today, and that’s a great shame, because what we have here is a very classy example of gothic filmmaking.

Art student Tino arrives in Venice and goes to stay with uncle Fabio (Vittorio Gassman) and his noticeably younger wife Elisa (Catherine Deneuve).

Immediately, it becomes obvious that All Is Not As It Should Be. The relationship between Fabio and Elisa is cold and awkward, whilst, late at night, the sound of a piano can be heard from a mysterious locked room upstairs.

So far, so Gothic. However, the expected Big Reveal – the mad brother in the attic – happens surprisingly early, leaving the rest of the film to wallow in a suffocating Poe-like atmosphere of decadence, corruption and decay. There’s also a doll motif which very much seemed to be a theme in Italian horror in this period – think Deep Red, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Five Dolls for an August Moon and, well, other films with dolls, mannequins, or simply the word ‘doll’ in the title.

The denouement is, perhaps, not quite as surprising as all that. Nevertheless, the location filming is excellent, the sets are wonderful and Risi proves himself to be quite adept at this sort of thing including a couple of effective jump scares. There’s a good performance from Deneuve but, sadly, she’s dubbed and not very well. Gassman – one of the great Italian actors of his generation – is simply outstanding in his journey from cold respectability and manipulative bastardry to utter insanity.

Should you see it? I think so. It seems never to have been dubbed into English, however, so you will need to watch the Italian version. But if nothing else it’s a rare example of a horror film (and, really, what else can it be?) in which – spoiler – *nobody actually dies*, and it’s worth treasuring for that. Add to that the location filming and Gassman’s extraordinary performance and you have a film that’s well worth your time.

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