Released by: Twilight Time
Released on: November 15, 2016
Directed by: Mauro Bolognini
Cast: Shelley Winters, Max Von Sydow, Renato Pozzetto, Alberto Lionello, Laura Antonelli, Mario Scaccia, Rita Tushingham, Antonio Marsina
Year: 1977 Purchase From Screen Archives
The year 1939 was a difficult one for Europe. Hitler had already invaded several European nations and was swiftly moving to annex others. Times were tough everywhere on the continent, including in nations that were allies with Germany (such as Italy), where supplies were being commandeered for military use as tensions and violent political insurgencies arose. It was in this oppressive atmosphere that Leonarda Cianciulli murdered three women and used their bodies to make teacakes and soaps. Cianciulli’s adult life had not been an easy one; after marrying a man despised by her family, she had suffered multiple miscarriages, and most of her living children didn’t survive childhood. As a result, she was protective of those who had; so when one of her sons decided to join the military, she became convinced that the only way to protect him was to conduct human sacrifices. Posing as a fortune teller, she lured women to her apartment, where she drugged, murdered, and dismembered them. She also robbed them and used parts of their bodies as ingredients in teacakes and soaps, which she either fed or gave to neighbors. One of the victim’s sons became suspicious of Cianciulli, who was last seen with his mother, and when authorities questioned Cianciulli, she confessed to her crimes, was arrested and convicted, and given a 30-year sentence in addition to time in an asylum. There she died in 1970 at the age of 76.
There have been multiple books, plays, and movies about Cianciulli’s life and crimes, but none are more famous (we use that word loosely) than Mauro Bolognini’s Gran Bollito (also known in English-speaking territories as Black Journal). The film is a fictionalized account of the case, though one close enough to the real events to be recognizable. Shelley Winters stars as Lea, mother to Michele (Antonio Marsina). She’s a bit of a pervert when it comes to her son, taking every opportunity to kiss him on the lips, press his face against her ample bosom, dry off his naked body when he gets out of the bath, and scowl at any woman who so much as gives his skinny twink-ass a glance. In other words, she’s gross! There are a number of ladies in her apartment with whom she carouses, including singer Stella and matronly Lisa (Renatto Pozzetto and Max Von Sydow, both curiously but not convincingly cast as women, and they aren’t the only ones). As she commits her murders, she feeds part of her victims to these so-called ladies and even eats some of the teacakes herself. After all, she’s… gross, in case we didn’t say it before.
Gran Bollito is an interesting if not entirely successful film. On the one hand, it seems to want to be a black comedy, but it’s never actually funny. On the other, it has all the ingredients for a good horror film, but it can’t pull them together sufficiently to create any sense of frisson. There are a couple of flirtations with the gruesome, but not-so-judicious editing subdues them. One thing that cannot be faulted in any way is the acting. It’s a given that Winters and Von Sydow would be excellent and are (despite the fact that Winters plays the part so… grossly); but the supporting performances are equally good, particularly English actress Rita Tushingham in a small but important role that allows her to shine in a Straight on Till Morning (1972) sort of way. What ultimately poisons Gran Bollito is that, clocking in at nearly two hours, it outstays its welcome in a way that similar serial killer “true story” Tenderness of the Wolves (1973) does not, no doubt because it had a better screenplay and a truer vision of what it wanted to be.
Twilight Time brings Gran Bollito to Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition. Contained on a single BD50, the film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio that faithfully preserves its original theatrical appearance. Some viewers may take issue with two aspects of the image, which we shall discuss at length here: 1) While some of the film looks quite sharp, much of it doesn’t. That has nothing to do with the transfer itself—or with the state of the materials used for that transfer—and everything to do with how cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi shot the film. Soft-focus filters were all the rage in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Gran Bollito is no exception. The result, however, is that detail is often obscured, though not extremely so given how clean the image looks. (Compare the fairly attractive image here to the messy image on Warner’s Clash of the Titans, 1980, Blu-ray.) Dirt and debris pop up occasionally and are very minor when they do, and viewers who fear film grain have nothing to worry about; in fact, when films shot with a soft focus are transferred in hi-def, they often have a more pronounced grain structure than we see here. Yet, neither digital noise reduction nor edge enhancement tools appear to have been utilized to artificially sharpen the image. 2) Some viewers may notice that colors are practically nonexistent. This is intentional, an attempt by the director to recreate pre-World War II Italy as a drab, colorless society, one that reflects the nation's fascist tendencies. The lack of a vibrant palette in exchange for cold grays and dusky browns is a stylistic choice, and Twilight Time’s release accurately reflects the director’s intentions.
For the film’s primary track, Twilight Time has opted for DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The track is clean and clear, with no serious issues. Dialogue is easy to understand, though most English-language viewers will require use of the subtitles to understand the conversations. Enzo Jannacci’s score is pretty stereotypical but sounds good nonetheless. The disc contains a second audio track, also English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, containing film historians David Del Valle and Derek Botehlo. Much of their discussion is dedicated to the work of Shelley Winters, not only here but for the duration of her career, as well as to her larger-than-life persona. They also discuss some of the more obscure Italian supporting players as well as the stars. Other subjects include serial killer movies, men acting in female roles, actors’ faces, Catholicism, and a host of other subjects we’ll leave you to explore on your own.
English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are included. Note that the opening scrawl is also subtitled, but because the scrawl is comprised of white words on a black background, the subtitles, which are also white, are a little difficult to read.
The only extra is an original theatrical trailer for the film. It runs 3:35 and is fairly typical of the period, opening with a stream of images first set to whistling and then to men singing. Rounding out the package are liner notes written by none other than film historian Julie Kirgo. The notes appear in an 8-page, full-color booklet and beautifully and succinctly cover every aspect of the film in the way that only Kirgo’s deft writing can.
The Final Word:
Gran Bollito is a bit dry and lifeless, although it contains top-notch performances from top to bottom. The film was shot in cold grays and browns and with a soft focus, which naturally limits the range of hues and the amount of detail that can be seen. The commentary is solid and the liner notes superb, both providing relevant background information for viewers wishing to learn more about the production.
Gran Bollito is a limited release of 3,000 units and is region free.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!