Color, 1976, 105m.
Directed by Carlo Lizzani
Starring Pietro Giannuso, Pietro Brambilla, Giuliano Cesareo, Daniele Asti, Brigitte Skay, Gilberto Squizzato
Camera Obscura (Blu-ray & DVD) (Austria RB/R2 HD/PAL), Medusa (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
With its title translating as San Babila 8 P.M.: A Useless Murder, it's obvious right off the bat this won't be your usual Italian '70s fare. The social upheaval caused by rising opposing groups of fascist and communist supporters led to a bloody chain of violence throughout Italy during the decade, which also had a seismic effect on its cinema ranging from the art house fare of filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini to the populist poliziotteschi crime films. Sandwiched somewhere in between is this look at a single day in the lives of four Italian youths -- Alfredo, Fabrizio, Michele and Franco -- whose criminal exploits are charted throughout Milan in real locations notorious at the time for their extremist right-wing congregations.
Populated primarily by non-professional actors, the film is largely episodic in nature as it begins with the youths, all sons of well-to-do parents, planning an assault on a left-leaning high school. The Piazza San Babila remains their base of operations of sorts as they spend the afternoon carrying out a string of antisocial acts like slingshotting ball bearings at passersby and shocking pedestrians by hanging dildos out of their pants. They also enjoy the favors of a nonchalant female companion (Bay of Blood's Skay), whose basement sexual assault scene is one of the film's most controversial moments, and plan an explosive disruption whose botched execution leads to a murder assignment that provides the film's title. Meanwhile the police, many of them sympathetic to the fascist cause to a degree, find it increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to their vicious behavior.
Tense and unsettling in a far different way than your usual Euro thriller, this film is also a standout work in the career of late director Carlo Lizzani, whose varied career included titles like Wake Up and Die, The Hills Run Red, The Violent Four, Last Days of Mussolini, The House of the Yellow Carpet, and the particularly infamous Teenage Prostitution Racket and Kleinhoff Hotel. Most of his films are still more difficult to see than they should be, with this one no exception apart from its short-lived DVD release in Italy and a custom-subbed gray market version circulated among fans. It's still a fascinating work today as Lizzani and his crew strive for a realistic, almost suffocating atmosphere with cameras quickly capturing scenes shot at the real locations on the street, frequently capturing the spontaneous reactions of the public around them (with releases signed afterwards to keep the film from running into trouble). How they managed to avoid getting beaten up or having equipment demolished is anyone's guess, and the end result speaks to the rewards of their fearlessness.
The Camera Obscura Blu-ray and DVD editions of San Babila mark the film's first official English-subtitled release anywhere in the world, with German subtitles also included. The HD transfer looks terrific, striking a nice balance between the distinctive shadowy but colorful look of the '70s film stock and the deliberate roughness of the on-the-fly cinematography. It's also a great companion piece to the thematically similar but more lurid Come Cani Arrabbiati, which the same label released five months earlier. The DTS-HD Italian mono audio sounds great, especially when it comes to the dark, militaristic score by the great Ennio Morricone.
In typical Camera Obscura fashion, the film also includes a feature-length audio commentary (in German with optional English subs) by Marcus Stiglegger and Kai Naumann, by now a very familiar team whose knowledge of both Italian history and filmmaking comes in very handy here. They do a fine job of sketching out the shooting conditions of the film, the real-life political situation at the time, and the careers of the few professionals seen on screen, while tying it all to the more commercial crime films of the period. There's also a 65-minute "An Age of Violence" featurette with actor/assistant director Gilberto Squizzato (who has a small role in this film); it's a fascinating, very dense piece starting off with his first Lizzani collaboration on Last Days of Mussolini and spending a great deal of time on this film's unorthodox shooting conditions. Definitely recommended as well as a useful guide to understanding the tense social conditions existing even around the production crew while they were shooting. There's also a fascinating "Locations Tour" gallery featuring then-and-now snapshots of pretty much every single location in the film (assembled with Squadra Volante Ligera), with a handful of businesses surprisingly still existing and looking almost the same, as well as a photo and artwork gallery and the Italian trailer. The typically cool packaging also comes with a lengthy essay (in German and English) about Lizzani written by Christian Kessler. Definitely an essential and highly unusual, intense addition to any Italian crime film collection.
Reviewed on April 6, 2015.