On the fifteenth anniversary of the disappearance of Francesca Visconti (a sadistic young girl who laughed as she stabbed her own baby brother in his pram), a string of gruesome murders is besetting the city. At first these are styled by the killer as punishments for perceived sins, with quotes from Dante’s Inferno left at the scene – but soon, in a change of modus operandi, it is not just “impure and damned souls”, but also eyewitnesses and investigators, who find themselves being targeted. As Inspector Bruno Moretti (Luis Emilio Rodriguez) and Detective Benito Succo (Gustavo Dalessandro), always one step behind, turn for help to wheelchair-bound Dante expert Vittorio (Raul Gederlini) – who also happens to be Francesca’s father – it seems that Francesca has returned, whether in body or in spirit, to wreak a legacy of cruel vengeance.
Luciano Onetti’s Francesca is a neo-giallo – a term that comes with an implied disinterment of a dead-and-buried palaeo-giallo. Two of the key figures in Italy’s stylised and lurid crime sub-genre, founding father Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci, both died last century – and Sergio Martino, though still alive and kicking, made his last theatrical giallo, Mozart is a Murderer, back in 1999. Of the original giallo directors, only Dario Argento has kept at it in the Noughties, with diabolically diminishing returns (2004’s The Card Player or 2005’s Do You Like Hicthcock? do not represent highpoints in the Argento oeuvre). Meanwhile, much as giallo drew from gothic contes, pulp mysteries and Hitchcockian thrillers, its own now well-established tropes had been gradually subsumed by the more market-dominant slasher.
Still, giallo keeps returning from the grave in new, if backward-looking, forms. On the one hand, there have been the reverent giallo homages of I Know Who Killed Me (2007), Argento’s own rather ridiculous Giallo (2009), Red Nights (2009), Julia’s Eyes (2010), Faces in the Crowd (2011), Tulpa (2012) and the knowing spoof The Editor (2014). On the other, there are the artfully transcendent distillations of giallo found in Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) or in Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet‘s exquisite diptych Amer (2009) and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013).
Francesca features the masked, leather-gloved killer, the macabre, grotesque murders, the colour-coded sets, the psychodramatic ‘primal scenes’, the police legwork, even the prominent bottles of J&B Scotch Whisky, that are the lifeblood of giallo. At one point Vittorio is even shown reading one of the yellow- (or giallo-) sleeved pulp novels that gave the sub-genre its name – and Francesca is full of loving visual allusions to specific scenes from classic gialli, right from the opening shot of a woman’s lower legs that evokes the similar opening image of Argento’s Deep Red (1975). In these respects Francesca is not unlike other neo-gialli – but it also falls into its own category. For Onetti’s film assimilates itself so closely to the stylings and aesthetics of its source material that it seems more like the genuine article than a mere pastiche or self-conscious echo.
Viewers might quite naturally imagine that, in watching Francesca, they are witnessing the unearthing of an actual, if long-lost, Seventies giallo returning, like its homonymous heroine, from the distant past. For there is literally nothing here to give away that this giallo, on reflection more retro than neo, was made in 2015, or indeed any time in the last three decades. Of course, that is in itself a credit to the film’s painstaking and nuanced production design.
“Francesca, is that you? My love, is that you? Are you here with me? Have you returned?”, asks Francesca’s damaged, drug-addled mother Nina (Silvina Grippaldi), convinced that her daughter is back – but what Francesca shows us is the unexpected reemergence of giallo itself, a whole generation after it was presumed forever disappeared or dead. Onetti’s film comes with all the nostalgic warmth that long-term fans derive from giallo‘s special blend of sadism, gore, perversion and twisty suspense – but non-fans of, or newcomers to, this ossified sub-genre might feel as though they are seeing a barely recognised ghost. For in horror’s capacious garden, Francesca lies in her own niche – and the paradox of a film like this is that its very originality rests in a slavishly derivative relationship to a mode of cinema that has long since fallen out of fashion.
© Anton Bitel