Rating: ★★★★☆

2011’s Cine Excess hosted a rare screening of this 1969 existential horror, in which the real world pairing of Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave, stage a tug of war for the soul of Nero’s troubled artist. Conceived by director Elio Petri as a comment on artists beholden to the commercial imperative at the expense of freedom of expression, it internalises the very qualities that Petri, we may assume, thought were necessary to separate a work from a commodity; it’s difficult, it makes great demands on its audience, it’s psychologically dense, ambiguous in intent and profoundly unsettling.

A Quiet Place in the Country begins with Nero and Redgrave fornicating in what might be called modern purgatory; a studio apartment full of bad art and plastic furniture – photographs of four breasted women, coke vending machines, the sort of space that critics of modernism would mark as a conceptual silage pit, a vulgar shack. Within it, Nero badly needs a muse. Instead he has Redgrave, who’s both shorted out his creativity by stoking his libido and made him feel inadequate for the same, suggesting he should do something that’s going to make money. Nero’s fragile Id responds by slipping into fantasy; he imagines himself as an emasculated patient, pushed around by Redgrave in a nurse’s uniform, and in a more violent scenario, stabbing her to death in the bath.

Salvation seems to be at hand when Nero discovers an abandoned Viennese villa, the perfect sanctuary and blank canvas, but Petri wants to torture his artist and consequently the house has a connection with a murdered siren, the spirit of which may or may not dislike Nero’s girlfriend more than he does, and which drives him toward greater extremes.

Made just prior to Nic Roeg’s Performance, it explores many of the same themes – namely identity and expression, utilising a similar brand of magical realism. Comparisons with Roeg’s movie (co-directed by Donald Cammell) are instructive, because the film draws the artist and their sanctuary together in the same way, using it as a stage upon which the mind’s dramas are played out.

As a portrait of a fractured psyche it’s a highly effective piece. Staying close to the artist’s perspective, it’s steeped in dread and uncertainty, with perspective shifts and fantasy sequences bolstered by Ennio Morricone’s unsettling score. As a ghost story, recalling Poe, and a mystery, it’s less coherent, though one can excuse Petri for this, as so much of the tale is informed by the artist’s febrile mental state.

Arguably it’s now ripe for rediscovery; its themes of commerce and politics intruding on the artist’s craft and their struggle to survive in the marketplace of ideas being pertinent in an environment where arts funding is being slashed and where exhibition is being co-opted by ever more powerful institutions in thrall to trustees, under pressure to make money. Petri knew that something had to give under such pressures. A Quiet Place in the Country suggests that ‘thing’ is the individual.

A Quiet Place in the Country played at this year’s Cine Excess Film Festival

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This article was first posted on June 13, 2011