Wednesday, April 23, 2008

THE SISTER OF URSULA (1978) d. Enzo Milioni

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Walking through an orange grove can be an exhilarating and sensuous experience. The play of the rich, green leaves against the azure clarity of a summer sky, mixed with the delicate music of the branches soughing in salty sea breeze, blended with the heady aroma of the ripe fruit can be intoxicating. Like any moment where the focus is on the senses, the instant is purely ephemeral and cannot bring lasting change to the intellect and spirit, for it is not profound enough. Be that as it may, it is still pleasurable and if the joy is great enough, it passes into the realm of epicurean or hedonistic. THE SISTER OF URSULA is a lot like a walk through a glade filled with wildflowers or a swim with a nyad in the Blue Grotto, every sense is heightened and assailed with every scene in the film, but it is a purely sensual experience none-the-less.

THE SISTER OF URSULA is the story of Dagmar and Ursula Beyne, Austrian sisters vacationing in Italy and trying to distance themselves from a family history filled with trauma and tragedy. Even as they settle into their idyllic surroundings, terror grips the hotel where they are staying. Women are being brutally raped/murdered in a singular act of vileness and perversity. As Ursula’s psychic senses give her insights into future events, the denizens of the hotel are swept closer to the edge of a maelstrom of lust, vanity and murder.

THE SISTER OF URSULA is one of the most attractive “giallo” films from a time when beautiful horror/thrillers were pouring from Italy like juice from a ripe lemon, so to give it high praise for its lushness and glamorous charm has real weight. Shot on the Amalfi coast in the heart of Italy’s most spectacular resorts, there isn’t an interior or exterior setting that isn’t breathtaking. Set in a real hotel that, according to director Enzo Milioni, had yet to be finished, there are outside walkways, inside stairwells, chambers, patios, shingly shores and aged corridors that splendidly mix medieval Italian Gothic moodiness with trendy and avant-garde modern Mediterranean architecture and style. Wonderfully composed shots and carefully considered camera angles, great use of natural light, atmospheric lighting and shadows make this voluptuous scenery come alive and dominate the imagery in THE SISTER OF URSULA. Added to the visual cornucopia is the beauty and sex appeal of the mixed European female cast, nearly all of whom are draped in the form-fitting, daring and dramatic fashions of the day and just as often out of those same garments, displaying their lithe and sinuous curves in one erotic scene after another. From Barbara Magnolfi’s hypnotic and unsettling gaze, to Stefania D’Amario’s winsome and vulnerable sexuality and Yvonne Harlow’s langorous and laconic allure, the women of THE SISTER OF URSULA and the surroundings they are draped over like a silk scarf are a feast for the eyes.

As Enzo Milioni says in his interview, “the story of THE SISTER OF URSULA is not top quality” and his generosity of spirit is evident. The plot is a great weakness in this film and keeps it from being the thoughtful “giallo” and/or thriller that directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento had created and still were creating at that time. Not enough attention is given to developing the terror of the killer stalking the grounds and passageways of the hotel, nor is enough tension and suspense developed around the Beyne sisters’ past and their current troubled relationship. Ursula’s manic and violent outbursts come across as grating rather than perplexing and it is difficult to establish any empathy for her, or her sister Dagmar who alternately caves in to Ursula or petulantly storms out when provoked. Too much time is given to courtly but flawed hotel owner Roberto and his shrewish wife Vanessa, as well as the dissolute and self-destructive characters of Fillippo and Stella. This goulash of often immoral and highly amorous characters is often the fodder for the many erotic scenes of this film. While these scenes are well-shot and very effective in escalating the heart rate of viewers, they add little or nothing to the story, its conflict, its resolution and the “giallo” atmosphere of the movie. On top of the convoluted and self-indulgent story, some of the editing of the beautiful camera work is jarring and abrupt, keeping the true epicurean from basking in the glory of the Italian seaside towns of Positano and Ravello. In the end, those scenes are the real reason for watching THE SISTER OF URSULA. As Enzo Milioni said, “the trade for shooting at the hotel was his promise to promote it”. Possibly that is why the imagery looks so good and the story is so weak.

The extras menu is thin but rewarding. In addition to the theatrical trailer, there is a 30 minute interview with Enzo Milioni where he recounts how THE SISTER OF URSULA came into being, where it was shot, memories of the film’s reception upon is release, soulful recollections of a cast that he was clearly fond of and anecdotes about the creative “murder weapon” of this infamous film. Between Severin Films and No Shame Films, I have listened to many interviews with European cast and crew members from 1960s and 1970s Euro-horror/thriller cinema and they are often entertaining, frequently enriching and always worthwhile.

Learning to perceive what an experience is going to provide you with is a life skill that only age brings and it is so very important to acquire. As a youth, I would have probably “grooved” to the “skin and sex” of THE SISTER OF URSULA, not really noticed the faults of the plot and tossed it off as a pleasant Euro-exploitation film. With the deeper wisdom of age, I can see the aesthetic value of this film that is so very like sampling the bouquet of a rose, or a merlot or a fine perfume. I can appreciate its delicate caress, like that of a cool breeze, a comfortable chair or my wife’s hand. These fleeting joys are the zest that makes life worth living, and THE SISTER OF URSULA rests among those same ephemera. Go in expecting a Fellini and you’ll be disappointed. Take the time to appreciate its strengths and look past its weaknesses and it is like strolling through that orange grove on the Isle of Capri.

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