The House With Laughing Windows

The House With Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono) 1976)

The House With Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono) first published by EyeforFilm, 24 Sept, 2006

Although Italy’s homegrown film genre of sensationalist thrills and masked kills has always been painted deep red, its collective name, giallo, is the Italian for ‘yellow’, from the distinctive colour of the sleeves that bound popular editions of cheap Italian crime novels.

Pupi Avati’s The House With Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono) positions itself as a giallo from the very outset, not only because of its enigmatic two-noun title (typical of the genre), but also because its monochrome prologue – in which two robed figures repeatedly stab a bound man while a male voice is heard raving inarticulately about infectious colours, syphilis and self-purification – comes with a definite yellow tinge.

In other respects, too, The House with Laughing Windows makes for a classic giallo, with its psychosexual intrigues, brutal slayings and imaginative twists – but, apart from the film’s blood-soaked opening, Avati largely dispenses with giallo‘s usual baroque grand guignol (typified in the lurid works of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci). Rather, his slow build-up of paranoid tension is more akin to the Tenant-era heyday of Roman Polanski, with the horror playing itself out more in the mind than on the screen. The unnerving results are a cut above your average giallo – and a million miles from giallo‘s poor Hollywood relation, the slasher. In short, Avati puts the art back into murder.

When unemployed painter Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) is invited to restore a church fresco in an isolated village that is stuck in the past, he quickly becomes intrigued, not just by the work’s highly realistic depiction of death, but also by anonymous phone calls warning him to leave and by the mysterious demise of a friend who had recently muttered darkly about a “house with laughing windows”.

The House With Laughing Windows

As Stefano’s efforts reveal more and more of the unusual wall painting, he also begins to investigate the murky past of the painter – a siphylitic outsider artist named Buono Legnani who was obsessed with capturing the agonies of death, and who apparently committed suicide a few months after completing the picture.

Quickly the mystery multiplies. Who are the other figures portrayed in the picture? If Legnani really died 20 years ago, where is the body? Whatever became of his models? Or of the two sisters with whom he shared an unnatural bond? And if the only other person in the house where Stefano has been lodging is his elderly bed-ridden landlady, who is it that he can hear moving about at night? If anyone knows the answers to these questions, no one is telling – for one of this community’s specialities, as Stefano was told when he first arrived, is silence. And here, both silence and talking can be deadly.

It would be criminal to discuss this film’s final-reel twist, beyond saying that you will never see it coming, even if in retrospect it makes a satisfying kind of sense. What is more interesting, however, and more haunting, is the number of questions, especially concerning the different villagers’ behaviours and motivations, that The House With Laughing Windows leaves entirely unresolved. For the film is not only about a particularly unspeakable series of crimes, but about the way a closed community’s code of omertà can spread complicity and guilt far beyond the original wrongdoers.

So while The House With Laughing Windows is certainly a gripping murder mystery, it is also an intelligent allegory (set, pointedly, in the early Fifties) of post-war Italy’s struggles to emerge from the Fascist outrages of its recent past. After all, great art has always had the power to reveal uncomfortable truths.

strap: Pupi Avati’s restrained, slow-burn giallo gradually reveals the many secrets concealed beneath its art

Anton Bitel