Finally, the “Italian Job saga” concludes with the icing on the cake, one of Robert’s best films (and by that I’m not only referring to his performance but the film in a whole) : Beyond good and evil (Al di là del bene e del male). This film was made in 1977 by Liliana Cavani and stars Robert Powell as Paul Rée, Erland Josephson as Friedrich Nietzsche and Dominique Sanda as Lou Salomé. The film is about their strong relationship, from their ménage à trois to their perdition: insanity, dead and marriage…
This film is very intensive, a real cinematographic lesson, the dialogues, the music is magnificent and the acting is excellent. That’s why I award this film as one of the best films starring Robert Powell : This one and Mahler are the most marvelous from a pure cinematographic point of view.
Of course, this film is also provoking and contains several sexual scenes, not of all of them justified to my puritan point of view. Especially the rather shocking scene with Robert, where he gets raped by a bunch of men (and a bottle… no comments!).
In this film Robert stars Paul Rée, a Nietzsche disciple who is homosexual, but falls in love of Lou Salomé, a feminist, a liberated woman ahead for her time. The three of them decide to live together and they have a lot of fun for a moment, but each one of them gives way to their weaknesses : Fritz succumbs to the insanity provoked by syphilis; Lou, the free woman who said she would never marry a man, feels obliged to marry one of her lovers; and Paul, well, let’s say he “happily” dies fulfilling one of his dreams…
Robert comments about the film
This is the movie Robert made right after Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s quite an odd choice after playing Jesus and having stated that he wasn’t going to play the “sensible young man” anymore. About his choice, I found interesting information in an interview he gave to Gordon Gow for the magazine Films and Filming in March 1978, “Taking risks” (which is, by the way, the most intelligent article I’ve read) :
“‘I’m rather quirky about what I turn down and what I accept. I like to be constantly moving, and ducking and diving. The more difficult and strange something is, the better.
“When one looks at the last ten of fifteen years in films, and in fact certainly before that, the one thing that established people was the guarantee that, with their names outside on the marquee, and audience knew exactly what they were going to go walking into, without reading a review. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s name outside a cinema, you knew what you were getting. You still do. And Charles Bronson. You know what you are going to get. And if you like it, then it’s a wonderful cosy feeling for an audience.
“I operate almost entirely by instinct, though. Scripts are the first things I react to – not directors but writers. If somebody comes up with something a little peculiar, then it’s liable to be more interesting. It’s got to be. It’s one thing to do a five million dollar film where you’re playing a fairly obvious policeman or something. On the other hand, Liliana Cavani asked me to go to Rome to do a strange story about the German philosopher Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. And suddenly I knew which I wanted to do: I wanted to go to Rome, and get involved in that rather peculiar story. It’s very loosely based on a piece of history about three peple who came together in the 1880s – Nietzsche, a courtesan who was a Russian emigrée, and one of Nietzsche’s disciples, a young German writer called Paul Rée. They established a ménage à trois, and the two men destroyed each other and attempted to destroy the courtesan. It’s a mammoth story, emotionally very violent.’
“We’ve been criticised on Cavani’s Nietzsche film because some people have said that it is not anything to do with the life of Nietzsche. Well, of course it isn’t. If you wish to know what the life of Nietzsche was, then we’ll make a documentary about it or you can go to the library and get a good, dull, biography. But we’re talking about directors like Cavani and like Russell who are using the cinema to portray one aspect, their own version of a possibility. It is themselves that they are expressing, just as much as it is the subject of their film. All of Russell’s films, I feel, are autobiographical. They’re all about him. He just does it through major people, because that gives him more scope. Television programmes like Omnibus or Horizon can tell us when a poet or a musician was born, where he lived and where he died and what he wrote. I don’t want to go to the movies to discover that. I want to go to be entertained. And Russell does that without fail. He is never less than highly entertaining. And intellectually stimulating as well.’
“I have a feeling that for Cavani the central character in the story is neither Paul Rée nor Nietzsche, but the woman. That is Cavani exploring certain of her own attitudes towards men, which are very much to the fore in her own make-up. She’s not an easy lady. She’s a sort of diminutive, slightly scruffy woman, whom I adore. I got on with her very well; we became great buddies. But on the set you would find a six-foot-six electrician, weighing about two hundred and twenty pounds, or less than that, and she could put the fear of God into him. I’ve never known such verbal savagery as she was capable of."
Where to find it?
I know that this film is a bit difficult to find and there are two versions: Italian and English. I suppose it was originally filmed in English, because I've found a version in English and it has the original voices of all the actors (you hear the accents). However, it was released in the Italian version. I’ve found a 1984 review from Janet Maslin from The New York Times, in which it is said that the film is in Italian. Her review is not tender at all, here is the conclusion:
“Though ''Beyond Good and Evil'' is as graphic as it can be, it manages to remain peculiarly unerotic, perhaps because Miss Cavani's explicitness seems so literal. When she depicts the details of, say, a homosexual gang rape or a visit to a bordello, her frankness says more about her inability to convey such things metaphorically or imaginatively than it does about courage.”
I got my copy from ebay: a vhs in an extremely poor quality but with English audio. However, the only dvd available I’ve found was on a Japanese site (sorry I didn’t keep the address), in Italian wih Japanese subtitles, an excellent video quality and funny digitally blurred parts in the nude scenes.
For some audiences (philosophy aficionados, cinema students), this is a cult movie, at least in France. For several years this film was shown in a little cinema in the Latin Quarter in Paris : “L’Accatone”, which is a local cinema wich always schedules classic films. Sadly it is not running these days, but it was when I arrived to Paris and remained many years. It took me several years to have the courage to go and see it! First because the showing time was a bit late for me to go alone: 10 PM! Also, I didn’t want to oblige my husband to come with me, mainly because I didn’t want him to watch the “shocking” scenes with Robert.
Finally we went together and he actually enjoyed the film. We were about 6 people on the cinema, a part from us, the other guys were long-bearded intellectuals, regulars of that cinema, and they seemed to know each dialogue, especially Nietzsche’s dialogues which were taken from his writings as they had strange reactions at some parts of the film that to us were uninteresting (some dialogues, Nietzsche's phrases). It was a funny experience, I wonder if other Robert Powell fans came to "L'Accatone" see that film through all those years!
Thanks for reading!