SFIFF: Blood ties

Pub date April 23, 2008
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

› cheryl@sfbg.com

You can keep those classy, highbrow Coppolas. I’ll play the low card with the Argentos any day. This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival is a feast for fans of the father-daughter team: Dario directs Asia in Mother of Tears, his long-awaited final entry in the cultishly beloved "Three Mothers" series, which includes 1977’s Suspiria and 1980’s Inferno. Asia also stars in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales, as well as the fest’s opening-night film, Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress.

I first encountered the duo under the least relaxing of circumstances at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival. Press interviews for Mother of Tears were held in a hectically crowded hotel restaurant. Waiting for my turn, I watched as team Argento chowed down a quick lunch, chattering together in Italian about who knows what (witches, ancient artifacts, the weather?). I clutched my tape recorder, feeling possibly the same mixture of fear, awe, and excitement that filled Suspiria’s Suzy Bannion when she arrived at a certain cursed ballet school.

Fortunately, my chat with the pair was devoid of ceiling maggots, underwater zombies, or — as featured in Mother of Tears — demonic monkeys. Probably the most frequent question Dario Argento has had to answer is the most obvious: why did he decide to finish the trilogy now, nearly three decades post- Inferno? "We have a time for everything," he told me, because of course that’s exactly what I asked him first off. "You wait until the idea comes."

There’s no doubt Mother of Tears sprang from Argento’s brain; his signature occult themes, glorious violence, and attention to style (instead of, say, plot) are all accounted for. He cowrote the film’s script with a pair of Americans he met while working on Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch (Simona Simonetti and Mother of Tears editor Walter Fasano are also cocredited). The film, which opens theatrically in San Francisco in June, received mixed reviews on the festival circuit. Variety critic Dennis Harvey, who also writes for the Guardian, called it a "hectic pileup of supernatural nonsense." True enough, but I would argue that while Mother of Tears is flawed, it’s enjoyably flawed.

The story revolves around a museum worker named Sarah (Asia Argento) who must summon previously dormant spiritual powers (inherited from her late mother, played by Asia’s real-life mother and Dario’s former partner, Inferno star Daria Nicolodi) to defeat an evil witch’s plot to take over Rome and eventually the world. Eyes are gouged out. Cleavers make short work of necks. Underground pools of muck must be navigated. Udo Kier, playing an exorcist, very nearly reprises his Suspiria role as Exposition Guy. Characters, including witches, take the time to use public transportation. Silly? Yeah, a bit.

Waiting to make Mother of Tears enabled Argento to take advantage of CG, one of his favorite cinematic inventions. His 1996 film The Stendhal Syndrome (which also starred Asia) was reportedly the first Italian release that used CG. In Toronto, Argento told me the film has more than 180 visual effects — including a church on fire — which were created in conjunction with Lee Wilson, another Masters of Horror veteran.

The freedom Argento has enjoyed with CG (now, he says, "it’s possible to fly high!") is matched by another door that has opened since the releases of Suspiria and Inferno: the censorship that plagued his early career is less of an issue in these accustomed-to-gore times.

"I hate censors," Argento assured me in our second interview, conducted over the phone in late March. "For Mother of Tears, I talked to the producer, the distributor, the financier [and told them], ‘I want to be free. I want to show my natural reality after so many years.’ And I did that."

In Rome prepping for his next film, simply titled Giallo (sorry, fellow horror nerds, I couldn’t get him to spill any dirty details), Argento reflected on working with his daughter. Stateside, Asia Argento is known chiefly as an actor (she tangled with Vin Diesel in 2002’s XXX and pissed off corpses in 2005’s Land of the Dead). But she’s also directed a handful of films, including 2000’s Scarlet Diva (which Dario co-produced) and the 2004 J.T. LeRoy adaptation, The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things.

"She understands what it means to be in the project — not just thinking about her character, but the other parts of the film," Argento said. "Since she was a child, she’d follow me on the shooting of many of my films. She grew up on the sets of my films. She’s very comfortable in this world, this show business."

In Toronto, Asia Argento stepped in as translator for both my questions and her father’s answers. She said that when she heard about the Mother of Tears script, she asked to be a part of the film. As in previous Argento-Argento collaborations like The Stendhal Syndrome, the part called for some grueling physical scenes. Still, the pair seem to have an easy rapport, laughing over the aforementioned underground pool of muck ("That was really gross to do," Asia remembered. "He prepared that for three days, this horrible soup. I would watch him prepare that soup, but I wouldn’t say anything!") Later, over the phone, Dario described he and his daughter as "big friends."

Onscreen, Asia Argento has a certain magnetism that few other performers can claim. In Go Go Tales, she appears in only a few scenes, playing a surly dancer who drags her giant Rottweiler with her everywhere, including into her stripper dance routine. Abel Ferrara, who also directed her in 1998’s New Rose Hotel (she directed him in the 1998 short doc Abel/Asia), calls her a "very, very special actress."

"She’s courageous, she gets out there, and she’s not afraid to take chances with the character or with herself," he said, calling from New York, where he’s working on a documentary about the Chelsea Hotel. "When you write a script like [Go Go Tales] obviously you’re looking for the women to bring it to life. We knew we needed people who could really bring something to the table. She’s got that something — it’s indescribable."

Mother of Tears offers Argento a juicier part as a woman who may or may not be totally crazy. But it’s her role as the titular character in The Last Mistress that ranks among her best work to date. It’s a dramatic, passionate period film about an upper-class man’s insurmountable attraction to his moody, impulsive woman on the side (guess who?). Her character pinballs from ecstatic howls to anguished wails, glamorous salon-lolling to beachside pipe-smoking, and dinner table stare-downs to horseback smackdowns. Indeed, it’s a bit over the top, but she pulls it off. As a pair of striking careers can attest, it’s an ability that’s surely imprinted on the Argento genes.

GO GO TALES Sat/26, 11:45 p.m., Kabuki; Mon/28, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki; April 30, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki

THE LAST MISTRESS Thurs/24, 7 p.m., Castro

MOTHER OF TEARS Fri/25, 10:30 p.m., Kabuki

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide