Wednesday, 13 October 2010

La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film

Publication Date: 28th October 2006

Despite ever greater prominence in the age of DVD popular Italian cinema from the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s has still received relatively sparse coverage in the literary world. With the continued rise in the study of cult film (and its acceptability within academic circles) this is an oversight that needs redressing. Aside from a handful of articles (one particularly important one is Leon Hunt’s A (sadistic) Night at the Opera: Notes on the Italian Horror Film from a 1992 edition of Velvet Light Trap) gialli have mostly found themselves discussed as part of auteur driven studies of the most visible directors of the form. But I have long believed that this durable cycle of films is deserving of a multitude of critical approaches, and to file them away as part of some half assed fan worship auteur nonsense does them a great disservice. Mikel J. Koven’s study is important for a variety of reasons. It represents the first occasion that gialli have been treated to a book length study in the English language and Koven’s thesis concerns itself as much with the audience of these films as it does with the formal properties that make the films so distinctive in the first place.

I have to admit I’m not much of an enthusiast for audience research. I find it to be a tedious and boring practise which limits an imaginative use of language and comes to conclusions which are hardly earth shattering. I’m interested in the films, not the people who go to see them. Therefore I find Koven’s central argument that gialli films were aimed at a rural working class audience with a low attention span to add nothing to my enjoyment of say The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Koven uses the term ‘vernacular’ to describe this regional audience whose only interest it seems is in sex, violence, and unsophisticated narratives. Although this may account for the popularity of gialli in Italy, it doesn’t really address the fact that these films crossed borders and played to different nationalities, languages, and cultures. This is a device which removes any notions of the artistic from the films and places them in a sphere of reception quite different to the art cinema for which Italy was internationally known. But the influence of art cinema on these films is very noticeable and to simply say these films were a formal reflection of a certain type of audience is too simplistic.

I found the book to come alive when Koven moved away from his concept of a vernacular audience. The chapter that explores the relationship between gialli and modernity is excellent - especially his discussion of two of my favourite gialli Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and House With Laughing Windows (1976). He also explores to good effect the role of the detective. I felt a chapter dealing with the relationship between gialli and slasher films to be misplaced, but it is nevertheless an area which could merit a book of its own. Unfortunately the central thesis of the text (I’m sure partly an academic device to gain interest, funding, etc) never truly vanishes, but Koven writes in such an enjoyable and imaginative way that one ultimately forgives him his academic hubris. Koven’s discussion of the set piece is interesting and seems to contradict his earlier disavowal of the practices of art cinema. His suggestion that the set piece, which lasts far beyond its narrative justification, eventually enters a realm that is very close to Pasolini’s concept of a poetic cinema. To suddenly start arguing for these films within the terms of one of Italy’s most influential exponents of socially and politically committed art cinema seems an odd move.

If one forgets the vernacular audience nonsense this book by Mikel J. Koven is an excellent starting point for discovering gialli. Koven refers to numerous titles, offering perceptive and illuminating textual analysis which genuinely does add to the enjoyment and understanding of the example. His cataloguing of the conventions and formal attributes of gialli has been done just as effectively elsewhere, but its nice to have it all contained in one attractive looking volume. My only surprise is that in the four years since this book saw the light of day there hasn’t been several more in its wake. Koven has certainly provided much which can be contested. One can only hope with the continual visibility of these films we will see more intriguing and interesting studies such as this.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Nice to see such a considered review of this! Mikel Koven was a tutor of mine at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. I love this book - a much needed appreciation and study of a genre usually disregarded as disposable pap.
    How come you found the chapter dealing with the relationship between gialli and slasher films to be misplaced? This is surely an aspect that can't really be ignored in a study of the giallo.

  2. interesting review Shaun.


  3. Thanks for the comments chaps! - I dont think the relationship between slasher films and gialli could be ignored in a study of slasher films James. It would be a fundamental element of any study of the slasher to pay reference to the influence gialli had. But I dont think the opposite is neccessary true. Virtually all aspects of the gialli form were cast in granite prior to the arrival of the slasher, so I dont think exploring this relationship tells us much about gialli. I feel there is enough of value and interest within the giallo film to leave that particular avenue to those scholars interested in slasher films first and gialli second...thanks for stopping by :-)

  4. "Koven’s discussion of the set piece is interesting and seems to contradict his earlier disavowal of the practices of art cinema."

    This is an excellent observation, Shaun, and truly one of the major failings of Koven's book. Personally, I find the 'vernacular cinema' argument somewhat strained, and feel Koven may well have been more successful if he'd applied the more rigorous approach of, say, Pierre Bourdieu (as concerns aesthetics and class).

    I feel your critical take the book is one of the more accurate readings on the Net. Interestingly, Koven addressed a number of issues with his work in a thread over on the AV Maniacs Forum, and it makes for interesting reading.

  5. Note: I find your remarks regarding the relationship between slasher films and gialli to be absolutely right, Shaun. Indeed, I think the usual genealogy proposed between the two is ridiculous: slasher films, apart from the cliche of a murderer stalking his prey, have very little in common with the convoluted plotting, formal pyrotechnics and typically stylish tone to gialli from the 'golden era' (say, 1969-1973). I think it's a lazy 'truism' that's simply been adopted by people who should know better - or, indeed, people who simply haven't seen enough gialli beyond the obvious.

  6. Thanks for the kind words Jonny. I didn't like the Vernacular Cinema bit either. But then I am prejudiced against audience studies, which I find very boring. It might be old fashioned, but I love textual analysis. When Koven heads into the film text the book comes alive. Alas I dont visit forums, but I'll try and check out the one you mentioned.

    I agree with you totally about the slasher connection. As I mentioned to a previous commenter I can understand a study of slasher films paying lip service to the giallo, but why the other way around? There did come a point when slashers began to exert an influcen on gialli, but Koven's book deals in far greater detail with a period that pre-dates the popular arrival of the slasher form....thanks for the comments.


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