La Pelle (Liliana Cavani, 1981, Italy/France)

Liliana Cavani’s La Pelle is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Curzio Malaparte’s 1949 novel. The film, like Malaparte’s novel, is an exploration of the American liberation of Naples during World War II, framed in a series of vignettes anchored by none other than Malaparte himself. The vignettes, which range from darkly comical to genuinely surreal and horrifying, are for the most part taken directly from the novel - including the noteworthy finale in which Vesuvius erupts. Marcello Mastroianni is excellent as Malaparte, capturing the detachment and cynicism on display in the novel.
Cavani notably scales back some of the more politically incorrect aspects of Malaparte’s novel - specifically with regard to its portrayals of African-American soldiers and homosexuals. She also brings a decidedly more feministic perspective to the material, embodied in the characters of noblewoman Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo, American pilot and socialite Deborah Wyatt, and the “Virgin of Naples” - Maria Concetta. In contrast to the novel, Cavani’s film develops the relationships between the men and the female characters - Malaparte with Consuelo and Deborah, and soldier Jimmy Wren with Maria. In contrast to the novel, where Jimmy ultimately dies, Cavani’s film explores a romantic subplot between Jimmy and and Maria - and a particularly nasty confrontation when Jimmy discovers Maria’s unsavory profession.
While somewhat more palatable than Malaparte’s novel, La Pelle is filled with Felliniesque excesses of sex and gore that make today’s films look tame. The film notably did not receive an American release at the time, as Warner Brothers thought the portrayal of American soldiers was so negative it would garner outrage. While Burt Lancaster’s General Mark Cork is definitely an unlikeable character, along with the rest of the American soldiers, the Neapolitans also come out of the film looking debased. La Pelle is a disturbing, if somewhat flawed exploration of the degradation of war and occupation.



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