A very personal adaptation of a scandalous book, Liliana Cavani's film may well appear thirty years after its release as a feminist take on the birth of the 'globalization' process. In 1943 Naples, after almost twenty years of fascism and an invasion by the Wehrmacht, Italy is being invaded again, this time by its liberators: the Allied Forces under American command. The clash of cultures, and particularly its effect on women, is the main subject of La Pelle.
As for every adaptation, what matters is what the director chooses to leave behind - and what she chooses to emphasize. Clearly, the masculinity issues so pervasive in the book are put behind; and though the character of Curzio Malaparte remains the guiding thread along a very chaotic journey three women - the Princess, the aviatrix and the 'virgin of Naples' - are put to the forefront. In the dire economic conditions and male-dominated order imposed by war and military occupation, Cavani's message is all but optimistic about the kind of 'liberation' actually going on.
The only virgin in Naples
Actually, it seems more like trading an oppression for another. The sexual freedom of the Princess seems hopeless. The American aviatrix's advance in the world of 'men' is first questioned (at the figliata party) then annihilated (by her being raped by G.I.s). The well-intentioned captain simply ruins both the livelihood and the magic of the virgin. It's a world ruled by money, communication and sexual predation, where prostitution of women and children is everywhere and each soldier seems reduced to a mandatory fetishism assigned by ethnicity.
Audiences in the 80s were stunned by the numerous scenes of horror bordering the grotesque in La Pelle. Since then, gore has long invaded mainstream cinema and cable TV series; the positive effect is that we may be more able to concentrate now on the symbolic aspects of these scenes in the film. Similarly, the evocation of the total collapse of Italian-ness - Naples being of course a high mark on the oddness scale for non-Italians - and its replacement by American business values may seem less shocking now, as it is obvious that indeed, somewhere between 1914 and 1945, European History self-destroyed.
Deconstructing America ?
The Skin is still a very unsettling film, nonetheless because the director is a crafted artist. For instance, she doesn't need to resort to speech to express the idea that the Allied are the new masters: a couple shots of the ballet of the general staff occupying a former fascist conference room is enough. Mastroianni's interpretation is a wonder of understatement, of dignity under an overwhelming shame. And above all, Cavani doesn't need to give answers - everything is in the questions.
La Pelle at imdb
Blu-Ray Z2 edition (Gaumont, in my shopping list)