Alex Sitaras: At the end of a day, we all want some peace of mind. For artists or those with a creative passion, this tranquility can lead to prolificness or a greater focus, and therefore better quality, of work. In Elio Petri‘s film A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), Leonardo Ferri (Franco Nero) wants to escape the city so he can focus on his art. He becomes enamored with an abandoned villa in the country and decides to rent the property. What follows is a bizarre take on the haunted house horror film or the psychological thriller. A Quiet Place in the Country is a jackpot for those wishing to examine the subconscious and how it manifests itself through Ferri’s character and hallucinations, and is quite the striking film. We chose this film to discuss for May’s Living Room Chat because Ben was recommended this film by friends. What did you know about A Quiet Place in the Country going in, and was it what you expected?
Ben McDonald: One of my good friends recommended me A Quiet Place in the Country and didn’t really tell me anything about except that it was bonkers and had Franco Nero in it. That was about all I knew going in, and honestly I think that made for the best experience, as I can confirm the film is incredibly striking and took me off guard almost immediately. I want to start off by mentioning the incredible opening to this film, which is just this bizarre, rapid-fire assault of acutely nightmarish imagery and a crazy Morricone score played over the credits before jumping into an actual nightmare that the film’s main character Leonardo is having. The first couple minutes of this film reminded me a lot of those in Bergman‘s Persona, which came out just two years prior to this, and the nightmare that Leonardo is having in the opening scene also reminded me of another giallo film I watched recently called All the Colors of the Dark (1972). The jarring way the credits are edited against several of the visual motifs to be explored later in the film starts the film off perfectly, and also establishes the film’s discordant, disorienting style.
I’m curious to know what you made of the film, Alex. From what I know of your taste I would guess this to be right up your alley, but am I right?
Alex: I definitely am drawn to films that have some sort of psychological undercurrent to them. In seeing the title sequence, I was also reminded of Persona and the grim imagery certainly sets the tone to come. What follows the title sequence can only be described as bizarre, but it soon becomes clear that the scene is a dream. Our lead actor Leonardo is tied to a chair, near naked, while who we later know is his girlfriend Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave) is his captive. Flavia speaks of the marvels of the city and activates several household appliances simultaneously in a loud, whirring display that is audibly unsettling. With a large knife on screen and Leonardo’s coy expression while Flavia speaks to him, it’s clear that the scene is some fantasy of Leonardo’s despite its abrupt, violent end. When Leonardo wakes up, we have to abandon any perspective we now have on Flavia, apart from noting Leonardo’s perception of her within his dream. What we can draw from this dream, however, is Leonardo’s preoccupation with both modern technology and sexuality which we see manifest itself through A Quiet Place in the Country tenfold.
Ben: There’s also a pretty apparent preoccupation with Italy’s fascist history within the film, but before we get to that I want to talk about the style at the very beginning of the film. I feel like there’s a pretty consistent style throughout the entire film, composed of sudden cuts, erratic pans, and zooms, but to me this style seemed particularly pronounced and aggressive within the first 30-40 minutes of the film, before Leonardo arrives at the mansion. This style is extremely uncanny, of course, but I think more than that it does a remarkable job of putting the audience in Leonardo’s frantic headspace, and communicates his artistic imagination that may help him succeed at his craft as a painter but also obviously gives him much anxiety.
Maybe I just haven’t seen enough similar films from the 60s and 70s, but to me this style reminded me quite a bit of Nicolas Roeg‘s Don’t Look Now, released 5 years later in 1973. I wouldn’t be surprised if Roeg had seen or was even inspired by A Quiet Place in the Country, based on that film’s similarly anxious, eccentric mode of editing and cinematography.
Alex: I felt, to some extent, the film reminded me of watching a Pasolini film. Not in the cinematography or editing, but rather in the psychological undercurrent that we are drawn to read into by what we’re shown on screen. The Technicolor, of course, we’re all too familiar with in fellow European arthouse films. I’d agree with you in that the film’s editing is more erratic in the first part of the film (apart from the penultimate scene); however, I still found myself having to go back and rewatch some moments in the final third of the film or so as Leonardo’s hallucinations become less surreal and more realist. There’s one scene involving soldiers and police officers that had me confused for a moment what was real and what wasn’t. And I believe the parallel made by Petri between men in uniform isn’t accidental.
Ben: Right, I would wager that juxtaposition was purposeful as well, considering both the oft-made comparisons between the imagery of police violence and fascism, and the film’s own vague, anxious fixation on Italy’s violent past that I mentioned above. A significant portion of the plot deals with the deceased character of Wanda, the young girl who previously inhabited Leonardo’s villa and allegedly had sexual relations with many of its town’s men before she was shot to death in WWII during an airstrike. Unless I’m mistaken, the film leaves the perpetrators of her murder undefined, but even if it’s safe to assume Allied forces were responsible, I think the violent nature and time period of her death, along with her ghost’s apparent animosity towards the living, reflects a broad anxiety in the minds of the film’s characters about their country’s oppressive contemporary history.
Maybe this is reaching, but I could see one also making a case for this fear towards fascism extend to Leonardo’s own artistic obsessions, which include as you said before technology and sexuality. Like many oppressive right-wing regimes, fascist Italy opposed much of what it deemed “deviant sexuality”, including, but not limited to, birth control, homosexuality, pornography, and prostitution. Given the sudden and violent end met by his other obsession – Wanda, who if the film’s other characters are to be believed, had no qualms about expressing her sexuality – perhaps Leonardo has a subconscious fear that he could meet a similar end should he continue pursuing his artistic compulsions.
Alex: Quite possibly. He also has a vision that a previous lover shot and killed Wanda, which could suggest a feeling of intimidation or repression felt by Leonardo, or even possibly an unfound paranoia or fantasy that Flavia would kill him.
Speaking of Flavia, her presence in the house doesn’t go unnoticed… by the house itself. She becomes convinced that Wanda is haunting the house and that the house is trying to kill her. Flavia has a number of incidents including falling through the floor and nearly being hit by a collapsing bookshelf that suggest to her that Wanda is ‘still there’, and moreover that the two are in conflict. Yet Flavia doesn’t represent the opposite of Wanda – her sexuality is realized in her relationship with Leonardo, and, at least from my perspective, there isn’t anything in the film to suggest that Flavia’s character represents chastity. What did you make of her character?
Ben: I think what makes her character interesting is that she seems to be the consistent voice of reason and concern to Leonardo’s downwards slope towards insanity. Every step of the way, she seems to (correctly) sense the impending doom facing her and Leonardo. I think while the film follows the narrative of uncovering the mansion’s ghost story as the framing device for her unease, I think what she is truly unnerved and upset about is Leonardo’s increasingly unhinged behavior, which of course climaxes in the film’s closing moments where his mind ostensibly makes a complete break from reality.
Alex: And noteworthy to the political subtext to A Quiet Place in the Country, it can’t be unnoticed that Flavia purchases Leonardo’s paintings for display in her gallery following his descent into madness. In his younger years, Petri was a member of the Italian Communist Party. There’s a swirl of possible interpretations to A Quiet Place in the Country that revolve around production, vices, and exploitation, and Petri’s perspective, at least for myself, remains elusive over the course of the film. At face value, A Quiet Place in the Country is a jarring, provocative film, and at a more thematic level, the film can perhaps be deemed equivalently.