“In an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness is a form of madness.” – Saul Bellow (Henderson the Rain King)
I received an email from a woman named Cristina, the promoter for an Italian filmmaker by the name of Luigi Atomico (aka Luigi Zanuso). She wanted to know if I’d be interested in screening and reviewing Luigi’s latest film, Oltre La Follia (Beyond Madness). She described it as “a surreal Porno/horror impregnated with the artistic/conceptual vision of the author.”
To be honest, I didn’t really know what any of that meant, but I was definitely intrigued. I asked her for more information, and she sent me a detailed synopsis for the film. I discovered that this was an anthology of sorts, comprised of different short episodes or segments, each with an underlying core meaning or message.
There was a bit lost in translation, but it was clear this film was intended to serve a social commentary, using surreal images of the grotesque and pornographic to illustrate the decadence of modern and contemporary society and the madness of man.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MADNESS
The filmmaker, Luigi Zanuso, is an octogenarian from Vicenza. His path to becoming a director was a very long and winding road. He’s been a rag man, a business man, a philosopher/writer, and a video store owner in the 80s (where he fell in love with movies). But he didn’t pick up a camera for the first time until 1994, at the age of 60.
He first started working under the name Luigi Atomico, where he became known for his unique and innovative style. Then, under the name Dario Lussuria, he produced and directed more than eighty films. His latest film, BEYOND MADNESS, sees the now eighty-year-old director return behind the camera for the first time since 2012’s SUBLIME AND PERVERSO, which attempted to combine grotesque pornography, mysticism and art.
WHAT MADNESS IS THIS?
BEYOND MADNESS begins with the filmmaker himself playing the role of Diogenes, a famous and controversial Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy. Diogenes criticized the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt or at least confused society. He became notorious for his philosophical stunts, such as carrying a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man.
In the film’s introduction, Diogenes is reading. The opening credits roll over a gritty industrial soundtrack, full of metallic screeches and heavy distortion. It sets the tone for the disturbing descent into madness.
We then get a quote from Diogenes, “I came searching for modern man but I only found his madness, “ which is then illustrated by a scene of Diogenes carrying his famous lamp. He’s examining a group of nude men and women, posing like the expressionless and motionless mannequins they are flanked by. The music has morphed from the industrial to the classical, creating a sense of gravitas.
Diogenes falls asleep, and we are then transported into his nightmare world of surreal imagery and debauchery. The first episode of the film is entitled “A Game of Madness.” It’s introduced, as all the episodes are, with another philosophical quote. This scene is shot entirely with red lighting, while the beautiful music of Gioachino Rossini (often called the Italian Mozart) plays in the background.
What then transpires is a scene, like all of those that follow, that defies explanation. It’s definitely pornography, as there are very explicit sexual acts and exposed genitalia. But it’s nothing like what has traditionally been defined as porn. It’s disturbing, hard to watch, and disorienting. It unflinchingly shows the viewer extreme, often described as deviant, sexual behavior and makes no attempt to glamorize the imagery. It’s exceptionally raw, with intentionally low production value to enhance the realism.
With that description, it would be easy to dismiss this film as pure exploitation, played out for shock value and titillation. But it’s hard to shake the visceral and emotional impact of the film that gives it a deeper meaning and helps it transcend beyond its base imagery and primal sexuality.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
In an interview with the filmmaker, which his publicist was kind enough to send to me along with the screener, it becomes even more transparent that this movie — as explicit and uncomfortable as it may be — is intended to be something meaningful and thought provoking. It’s best described as an art house film that uses horror and pornographic imagery to explore its philosophical themes.
In the interview, Luigi explains his fascination with the duality of man. He talks about his own contradictions, how he views himself as both a realist and someone fascinated with the surreal. He’s a romantic, but he’s also a tragic and skeptical personality. He says the challenge is to find these contradictions within yourself and affirm them, find a way to express them and find the balance between competing elements of your personality.
Man himself is a contradiction. Full of enormous potential and possibility, we squander our potential by wearing masks and hiding our true selves, falling into the trappings of modern society, voluntarily limiting our self-expression and wearing the chains of religious and philosophical ideology.
The imagery of the film mirrors this contradiction. It’s at once strangely beautiful and repulsive, erotic without being seductive, artful and grotesque, superficially base and yet rich with deep subtext.
Through increasingly disturbing visuals involving eating and fornicating with raw meat and animal parts, the film explores man’s descent into madness. In the director’s own words, the episodes offer a critique on modern society, on our obsession with superficial indulgences and greed, and on our inability to honestly express ourselves and communicate with one another.
MORE THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
This won’t be a message that’s easily digestible for most. This is not, nor is it indeed to be, mainstream fare. I have a taste for the dark and disturbing, a fondness for the surreal and horrific. But this was not an easy watch for me. It was hard to get past the graphic sexual content, combined with some of the stomach turning visuals. And, yet, I couldn’t turn it off. I couldn’t stop watching it. And, when it was over, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
What did it all mean? How did it make me feel? How was I supposed to feel? Was it art or porn? Was it philosophy or smut? Was it deeply depraved or highly intelligent?
I’m still not sure how to answer most of those questions. But I do think a film that makes me think and feel so much has succeeded on at least one very important level. The filmmaker states in his interview that he knows he’s controversial. He knows his work is not for everyone, and it takes a certain kind of viewer to truly appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish.
Zanuso calls himself a porn filmmaker, but he rejects traditional pornography, saying it lacks creativity and realism. He finds it boring, uninteresting, and uninspired. He thinks that sex can be a beautiful thing when shared by two people who care about or even love each other. But that, to him, is a private act. It’s not pornography. His intent is to make films that are beautiful, different and, most importantly, not boring. To that end, I think he has more than succeeded.
Watching the interview with the filmmaker definitely added to my appreciation and understanding of the film. The upcoming release of the premium box set will include the 20 minutes exclusive interview with the director, one interview with one of the actors , 2 never seen before short films by Zanuso and the teaser trailer.
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