Amanzio Berzaghi (Raf Vallone) pleads with top cop Duca Lamberti (Frank Wolff) and Duca’s smartass subordinate Mascharanti (Gabriele Tinti) to find Amanzio’s missing daughter Donatella (Gill Bray/Gillian Bray). Even though she’s twenty-five and well over the threshold of adulthood, she’s also mentally challenged and has the maturity level of a three-year-old. Plus, Donatella’s a full-blown flirt who “loves doing anything men ask of her,” forcing her father to keep his apartment locked down like a fortress. Now it’s a race to see who will find the culprits first and what will happen to them afterward.
Duccio Tessari’s Death Occurred Last Night (aka La Morte Risale A Ieri Sera) is a Eurocrime/Poliziotteschi film, but it hews slightly closer to an American Police Procedural in its general approach to the narrative. The film isn’t action-packed like, say, The Big Racket or Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man. It is very much a slow burn with a slow build, focusing on the banality of the day-to-day tasks of investigating a crime in Milan. It is interesting, then, for how unexploitive the majority of the film is in terms of violence, how very exploitive it is in terms of sex. The hookers shown all do their damnedest to put it all out there, and they drop their clothing like they would a used tissue. There also seems to be a very conscious decision on the part of Tessari in the casting and depiction of Donatella. Without being too indelicate or insensitive, she is closer in the looks department to a model than to someone most people would identify as mentally challenged. She dresses in apparel designed to show off her womanly assets, and there is even a lingering shot of her trying to figure out how to put on her bra, which focuses almost exclusively on her breasts. Further, as Amanzio describes the life he had with his daughter, the film gives off a very distinct whiff of incest. This, thankfully, is never explored, and their relationship is nothing more than one of familial love, giving more power to this father’s anguish.
That said, I think the juxtaposition of the hookers with Donatella and their treatment by the filmmakers is relevant to one of the film’s themes, and it is one of objectification of women. These women are essentially pieces of meat to be traded for money; their bodies their only value. Were Donatella of sound mind, she may have been able to escape her captors or think her way out of her situation. Because she can’t, she can only cry out for her father’s help. Errera, the black hooker (essentially a double strike against her from her experience with Milanese society) whom Duca takes into his flat, understands her situation all too well, although she tries to play it as if she were in control of her life (“There’s no pimp behind me; I’m free”). Nevertheless, later the truth will come out (“I’m still on the streets with a different pimp”), and it is this acknowledgement of her station that causes Herrera to go down a self-destructive path. Additionally, it is another character’s desire to be wanted physically which plays a large part in the film’s resolution. Yet this desire clearly rises from a place of loneliness and possibly from the consideration that it is physicality which defines beauty and worth. This mindset would almost certainly emanate from the behavior of men in regards to hookers and the bodies of women like Donatella, who do not appear to have anything else to offer a person outside of their anatomy.
Beyond this is a debate on morality and the value of human life, and this is, intriguingly, played out not in the police activity with local pimp Salvatore (Gigi Rizzi) or the dealings with Amanzio, but in the scenes of Duca and his wife/girlfriend (Eva Renzi, whom I’ll refer to as his “lady,” since I couldn’t find a name given to the character either in the film’s subtitles or on IMDB) at home. Duca is of the opinion that people are predominantly scum, and they are exploited by other people, who are equally scum-esque. This first comes up when he visits his lady at her newspaper job and comments on the violent photos they use. When she states that people are violent and they are merely reporting such, Duca retorts that he wants it to end, that in some way, by keeping these types of things in the public eye, they continue to be propagated. Despite this cynical, world-weary view of life, Duca tries desperately to cling to a sliver of hope. He plays guitar and sings while at home. He is a giving romantic with his lady. This also explains why he takes Errera into his home. Ostensibly, it’s so she won’t be harmed by anyone or harm herself before he can find Donatella. Yet, as the film plays out, his and his lady’s conversations with her tend to revolve around her inability to recognize her value as a human being. In spite of this, neither one can stop the hooker’s self-harming tendencies. This presents us with the central question of the film, and to my mind, it’s not the obvious one of who has the correct perspective on life; Duca or Errera. Rather, I like to think that it takes for granted a pessimistic attitude toward mankind and instead asks “why should we care?” Clearly, we can only answer such questions for ourselves, but I think that Tessari’s confidence in his audience’s ability to parse out this conundrum is what ultimately makes this film as strong as it is.
Another way this film differs from other Eurocrime films, at least to my reckoning, is in the stylistic techniques Tessari employs. The sequences where Amanzio recounts Donatella’s kidnapping and their life before that are strung together in fractured time. The editing leaps back and forth, with very little to anchor the viewer as to when the events take place. When we flashback to sequences of the Berzaghis’ happiness, it is accompanied by an oddly rowdy lounge-tinged song, further reinforcing the idea that even when times were good, they were still filled with disarray and a sense of anxiety. In all of this, the full exposition of the story is given while simultaneously cultivating a stark sense of chaos, mirroring Amanzio’s mental state and desperation. As Duca and Mascharanti search the city, many of the scenes which we would expect to be loaded with banter or with Procedural dialogue are edited with music rather than any diegetic sound. What they say in the course of their routines is inconsequential. In fact, the audience could likely recite it all for them with little effort, because their dialogue in these scenes is not the point of the film. The kidnapping investigation is merely the context for the content of a deeper conversation Tessari wants his audience to contemplate. It shades the film as something of an odd duck at first glance, but once the veneer of genre is stripped away, what remains is a philosophical quandary which may have a simple end but hardly by simple means.
MVT: Wolff does a very nice job of playing a man at odds with his existence. He cares, but he can’t really show it in public. He is frustrated by the world he encounters, but he believes it can be changed. All encapsulated by an actor with a truly shrewd and withering glare.
Make Or Break: Without divulging anything, the ending of this film is outstanding. It satisfies while also putting a period on the end of sentence which is still a question. The more I think on this film, the more affected I become by it and its final frame.