Don’t Torture a Duckling

1972, Italy
Cast: Florinda Bolkan, Barbara Bouchet, Tomas Milian, Irene Papas, Marc Porel, Georges Wilson, Antonello Campodifiori, Ugo D’Alessio, Virgilio Gazzolo, Vito Passeri.
Director: Lucio Fulci.
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci, Roberto Gianviti, Gianfranco Clerici.
Cinematography: Sergio D’Offizi.
Editing: Ornella Micheli.
Music: Riz Ortolani.
Availability: Don’t Torture A Duckling (2-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray + DVD]

There is a deep vein of cynicism running through the center of Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (aka Non Si Sevizia un Paperino). The same can be said for the vast majority of the man’s work. His filmography is littered with the bodies of people snuffed out in manners most gruesome, and their virtues are no ward against the brutalities (realistic or fantastic) of the world. Hell, in literal and metaphoric fashion, awaits us all in Fulci’s cinema. Rather than focusing on the supernatural, Don’t Torture a Duckling sets its sights on the innate evil in humanity, and by centering the film in the small village of Accendura, populated by folks both pious and superstitious (one could argue the thin-to-non-existent line between the two mindsets), he draws a comparison with the state of the human soul everywhere. It’s not a pretty picture.

The film opens with a panning shot of a pastoral mountain range with a winding, concrete bridge running alongside it. It encompasses both the beguiling tranquility of the rural setting and the modernity which encroaches on it. But the height of the bridge over the land removes the “civilized” world from places like Accendura. It passes by, even through, but cannot force the village to change, merely ignore it in the future’s constant march forward. This is reinforced later in a scene where cars pass by a dying person, disregarding the carnage. Ignorance is bliss, and humanity an inconvenience. In the foreground of the initial shot, bloody, muck-encrusted hands claw at the dirt, finally uncovering the skeleton of a baby. The hands (and, the audience naturally assumes, the baby) belong to Maciara (Florinda Bolkan). Her eyes are wild, her actions frantic. This unsettling image contrasts against the quiet image of cars tooling along the bridge, oblivious to anything other than the road immediately ahead. Yet, the soundtrack is not silent. On it, a woman wails a traditional-sounding song (its origin and meaning, if there are any, are unknown; there are no words, only the cries of a person in some penitent state of dismay [in other words, not an upbeat tune]). This village, then, is a place ruled by an iron-fisted God, its citizens afraid of the world outside. But, even here, unholy things take place.

Initially, the film centers on three boys: Bruno, Tonino, and Michele. They are fairly normal boys doing fairly normal boy things. They smoke pilfered cigarettes surreptitiously. Tonino uses his slingshot on a lizard in repose atop a rock (shades of Peckinpah). He spots the car belonging to a couple of visiting hookers, and the boys follow along, though they know the remote location where the prostitutes are headed (again, a reference to the exterior world corrupting the small village, this despite the invitation for the hookers to come there – an indication of the moral hypocrisy of the region). The kids hope for an eyeful and talk big about the possibility of spending some time with the ladies of negotiable virtue. Michele’s mother works for Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), a woman of economic means and a free attitude toward sex. She is a reluctant villager by dint of her parentage. Michele is tasked with bringing Patrizia her daily orangeade. Up in her room, she lounges naked. Michele stares at her breasts through the undulating liquid of a wave motion machine. Patrizia notices this, and, rather than covering herself or being upset, she stands, inviting Michele to take in all of her mature, female flesh. She pours her drink down her body, and teases the lad, “Would you like to go to bed with me?” Things stir in Michele, as they would, but Patrizia’s intimidation of him as a strong sexual presence is something he will never forget.

The boys keep to themselves, knowing that their parents would disapprove of their actions, but they fear God more. In church, one of the boys takes confession. We don’t hear his sins, but his mien afterward is enough to show us his guilt. Meanwhile, Bruno, who kneels in one of the pews waiting for his buddy, keeps his hands over his face, peeking between his fingers on occasion. There is the dual assumption that he has already confessed or is scared to, and he hides his face in the church, frightened and curious. Kind of like the feelings evoked in a person’s first sexual encounter. Of course, the struggle between God and sex is one typically won by the loins rather than the Lord, in the end. Damnation may last forever, but right now, one can get laid.

Don’t Torture a Duckling, as a giallo, follows alongside the footsteps of many dark dramas involving kids without treading directly in them. Usually, these tales are coming of age stories, and they detail the often harsh life lessons that will form these kids into adults. Here, the kids are victims, and this alone marks the film as transgressive, though for the genre, it’s not unusual (see What Have You Done to Solange? for another example, though, in that film, the victims had done more than simply be young to mark them as targets for their killer; another differentiation between other gialli and this one). That we get to see their bodies in the aftermath adds to the shock (we, as human beings, always lament the shortening of a life in such early progress, perhaps more than the loss of life in and of itself). These boys aren’t much more than their desires, which is something that can be said about all adolescent boys, regardless. Nonetheless, the audience gets to identify and empathize with them, because they recognize the innocence and experimentation in things reserved for adults. Their potential is the reason for their demise.

Similarly, all of the local boys (there is only one female child featured in the film, and she is deaf, mute, and mentally handicapped) look up to local priest Don Alberto (Marc Porel). He is their friend as well as their confessor, their ideal father figure, as their real fathers are the sort of hard men who value the stick over the carrot and are not above soliciting hookers (something the boys likely envy and resent). Don Alberto is the man the kids go to for advice and penance, and he connects with them in his even-handedness, his genuine concern for them, and his willingness to play soccer with them. As the face of a virtuous life, Don Alberto is the odd duck (sorry) in Accendura. Even his mother, Dona Aurelia (Irene Papas) is bitter, sullen, and distrustful. That said, the villagers may go to church on the regular, but they have no trouble believing in things like black magic, too.

This is where Maciara comes in. She and her lover Francesco (Georges Wilson) practice the darker craft. Much of Maciara’s time on screen is spent molding wax effigies of Bruno, Michele, and Tonino (the dolls are intercut with the actors to concretize the connection) and sticking pins into them. Nevertheless, it is stated that the “witches” in the area work closely with the servants of Christianity, and Francesco even avers that he communicates with the saints of the latter religion. This relationship between the two delegitimizes both religions, because if one is nonsense, and the other accepts the same things, then both must be nonsense, right? Many viewers are more inclined, due to the influence of horror films (something not dissuaded here), to see magic (black or otherwise) and its practitioners as alien, if not evil. After all, Christians never used dolls to harm their enemies by long distance. They would do it in person. Don’t Torture a Duckling takes a dim view of religion, especially Catholicism. This becomes apparent, not only in the film’s portrayal of the effects of the religion’s strictures on the population (they begrudge and rebel, at least in private), but also in its portrayal of its murders. One takes place directly under a large stone cross. One takes place in the local washing pool (seemingly located next to a cemetery). One takes place at a river, and one which we don’t see is related as being a drowning. The heavily used water metaphor, in conjunction with the more overt religious imagery looming over these deaths, points to the Catholic sacrament of Baptism, a cleansing of Original Sin (likewise, the earlier shot of Patrizia nude through the wave machine symbolizes a baptism of another sort). The film’s statement is that Catholicism kills in order to save, making it no better and no wiser than any other belief system, and they’re all just made up superstitions, anyway, like black magic and so forth.

This film is Fulci in restrained mode, something with which most people who know his name don’t normally associate him. The performances, from Bouchet and Bolkan to Porel and Tomas Milian (as a logical [in the grand tradition of Italian genre cinema logic] reporter following the clues to the truth, unfettered by the shackles of religious belief), are strong. Fulci creates a truly oppressive, old world atmosphere where people have abandoned the God they still fear. This is not to say that there are not some of the maestro’s more outrageous touches herein. The film contains a brutal beating that is both emotional and extravagantly gruesome (it is strongly reminiscent of the opening scene of Fulci’s The Beyond, to give some idea of the gore level). There is also a dummy death so drawn out and unrealistically grisly that it simultaneously fulfills the cathartic punctuation the film needs while threatening to derail it. And somewhere Maestro Fulci is smiling.

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