Luridly and misleadingly titled, “Viper” is an atmospheric but deeply flawed film exploring the mother/whore mythos in postwar Sicily. It is an uneasy fit in the filmography of Sergio Citti, former a.d. to Pier Paolo Pasolini and director of whimsical fables about Italy’s poor like “Minestrone” and the recent “I magi randagi” (The Three Wise Men). Here, too, the story has a fairytale side in which the director’s long-running concern for victims and underdogs emerges forcefully. Too often, however, his signature naif style veers into unintentionally campy caricature, and often the film seems awkwardly patched together, as though it had undergone major and not too successful surgery. Harvey Keitel and Giancarlo Giannini, pic’s drawing cards, disappear half-way through, and the title character is a surprisingly marginal figure. Apart from festivals in the mood for a curiosity item, pic looks like a video item in most markets.
Screenplay by “Life Is Beautiful” scripter Vincenzo Cerami and Citti describes the coming of age of Rosa (Larissa Volpentesta), the striking 11-year-old daughter of blacksmith and village drunk Leone (Keitel). Silent, shy and uneducated, she is desperately attached to her father by a fierce love after her mother, a beautiful showgirl known only by Leone’s curse “Viper,” ran off with another man.
The girl attracts the attention of the swaggering local Fascist leader Guastamacchia (Giannini), who corrupts her with chocolates and a bath in a real bathtub. When Leone learns his daughter is pregnant, instead of rejecting her he loves her even more. They happily make plans for the baby, giving rise to gossip that it is Leone’s own child.
Very well dubbed into Italian, Keitel turns in a convincing and multi-layered portrait of the father. Giannini slips comfortably into the villainous role of the Fascist child molester. The tussle between the two men, who represent human good and evil, is a fine piece of cinema.
Weak link is the young Volpentesta, whose child-to-woman beauty can’t make up for Zen-like inexpressiveness. Annalisa Schettino, taking over as an older Rosa, has the same doe-like green eyes but comes a bit more alive onscreen. Leone’s death has lead to her baby being taken away, and her incarceration in a kind of reform school run by nuns and witches. When she’s released on her 18th birthday, she sets out to find her son. In the process she meets Viper (Elide Melli).
The theme of motherhood is viewed from both angles now, Rosa’s and Viper’s. Citti condemns the cruelty of officialdom in stripping women of their children, but presents the argument in such loaded soap opera terms that it has muted impact. Much stronger are his iconic images of a naked woman lying on the street with her legs spread, or a statue of a bare-breasted Virgin Mary nursing the baby Jesus.
Blasco Giurato’s chiaroscuro lighting lends the film a classy high-drama look, rather in contrast to Nicola Piovani’s happy-sad score.Together they embody the film’s divided soul.