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Claudio Sestrieri’s Chiamami Salomé (2008)

by Alex Falzon

I

Along with Shakespeare and Dickens, Wilde is probably the only other writer within the Canon whose works have been constantly adapted for the silver screen, right from the silent-film era and up to the present moment, when tidings of a new production of The Picture of Dorian Gray have been widely reported in the press.

Odd as – at first – this might seem, it is the one-act Salomé, out of Wilde’s entire oeuvre, that has been repeatedly filmed over the years: starting, again, from those distant, pioneering days when the cinema was still in its infancy: I’m referring to the American movie The Dance of the Seven Veils, which was directed by J. Stuart Blackton and released in 1908.

Come to think of it, it’s quite amazing that so – relatively – soon after Wilde’s death a film version should be made out of his most controversial text, and in puritanical America, too! It wasn’t as if his name was cherished and his reputation firmly established (far from it). As we know, in those years, the reading and play-going public – on both sides of the Atlantic – shunned  his books and plays and, indeed, the first decade of the twentieth century witnessed the lowest ebb – ever – in his literary reputation.

Oddly, again, it was mainly thanks to Salomé (with a little help from Richard Strauss), that his stature as an artist was finally redeemed (at least on the Continent), also allowing Robbie Ross – in that very same year when the American film came out – to announce that he had at last paid off  all of Wilde’s creditors.

Such a positive swing in Wilde’s status may, perhaps, account for the fact that shortly after, in 1910, there appeared an incredible cluster of Salomé films (in Great Britain, France and Italy), which were followed, in 1912, by the Italian Erodiade (directed by a certain “Dr. Garriazzo”). The latter, as we shall see, was to become part of a long string of Italian films based on Salomé which were continuously made throughout the twentieth-century, as well as into the third millennium (as is the case with Claudio Sestieri’s Chiamami Salomé [‘Call Me Salomé’, 2008], which I will tackle anon).

In 1918, another American celluloid drama – directed by Gordon Edwards – took its  inspiration from Wilde’s play, starring none other than Theda Bara at her most ghoulish self. Yet I think that the most memorable adaptation from that early era is the highly stylised and bizarre Hollywood film directed by Charles Bryant in 1923 with a scantily-clad Alla Nazimova playing the part of the small, dancing princess. Although it doesn’t always adhere closely to the text, it is still worth seeing for its visual impact alone, its décor being a direct homage to Aubrey Beardsley’s stunning black and white illustrations. This must also explain why it is the only Salomé from that period that is still quite easily available for viewing.

II

With the advent of sound and colour, he who was known as the peerless “lord of language” and the  restless pursuer of golden dreams ought to have had his adaptations improved by these new techniques; and yet, apart from a few exceptions, they did not really advance the cinematic, as well as dramatic, quality of the films which used his Salomé as their primary source. The American Salomé Where She Danced (1945, directed by Charles Lamont), for example, stars Yvonne de Carlo as a Viennese dancer who, during the Franco-Prussian War, on being suspected of espionage, flees to Arizona (no less). Whereas in the equally Hollywood-produced Salomé (1953, directed by William Dieterle), we find out that Salomé, who’s really a closet Christian, actually dances her notorious dance in order to save the Baptist’s life (though she only removes six veils, so as not to offend the enforced Hays Code).

In 1963, out of Andy Warhol’s Factory, came the short (silent and black & white) movie entitled Salome and Delilah (of which only a single copy is known to exist). One of Pedro Almodòvar’s first cinematic attempts was also in the form of a short film called Salomé (1978); and, just like Warhol mixed the Old Testament Delilah with the New Testament Salomé, so did the Spanish director, too, place the latter figure alongside an irate Isaac about to be sacrificed by his  fervid father.

In the meantime, from Italy, came Carmelo Bene’s truly visionary, almost psychedelic, Salomé (1972) which, in my opinion, is the best of all the film versions to have stemmed from Wilde’s play (although it incorporates certain elements drawn from its companion-piece, La Sainte Courtisane). Also in the course of the Seventies, and also from Italy, came a film which had the Biblical episode of the dancing Salomé at its core: Roberto Rossellini’s Messiah (1975). Yet, like in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), his Salomé, too, is portrayed in a traditional, iconic, way: that is to say, as the virginal, naïve, girl who is entirely manipulated by a scheming Herodias and who, in the end, is as horrified as the Tetrarch by the outcome of her dance.

Among the other, more recent cinematic adaptations one could mention, in passing, the French/Italian Salomé directed by Claude D’Anna in 1985, which tends to be rather dull and leaden; as well as the British Salome’s Last Dance (1988), directed by a more- than-usual-delirious Ken Russell and which, consequently, is often kitsch and invariably crass. The more recent Spanish Salomé (2002, directed by Carlos Saura) is also quite tedious, since it concentrates on filming the rehearsals and then the actual performance of a ballet that’s loosely based on Wilde’s text, without ever creating any truly effective dramatic moments.

III

Wilde’s text, to be honest, was better served, in the second half of the twentieth century, by that series of films which did not specifically aim at being a faithful or straightforward adaptation, but only used it in a fragmentary way, through intertextual allusions and ‘quotations’ which were  cleverly embedded into the main plot. These helped to enrich the films themselves, whilst shedding, at the same time, an oblique, new light on the play.

I’m thinking, first of all, of Billy Wilder’s splendid Sunset Boulevard (1950) wherein the silent film star (played by Gloria Swanson) chooses the role of Salomé in order to re-launch her  waning screen career. Later on, in Liliana Cavani’s  disturbing The Night Porter (1974), the ex-Nazi officer played by Dirk Bogarde relates, in a flashback sequence narrated to his one-time victim (Charlotte Rampling), how he had another prisoner decapitated (with many a psycho-sexual echo drawn from Salomé), in order to gratify his morbid attraction for her.

Peter Jackson’s brilliant, mock-‘bio-pic’ Forgotten Silver (1996) tells the story of an unsung hero – Colin McKenzie – who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, inadvertently invented the cinema in New Zealand. A research team will eventually discover, in the jungle, the reels of his lost, and legendary, Salomè. Robert Altman’s bitter-sweet Cookie’s Fortune (1998) also uses a  performance of Salomé in order to stress its inherent, anti-racist, message; but the vitality of Wilde’s drama was perhaps best enhanced in Suri Krishnama’s moving A Man Of No Importance (1994) which is also about staging Salomé, but this time in today’s Dublin, with all the drawbacks it encounters along the way.

IV

The very last two films which are (almost) entirely based on Wilde’s drama are both Italian. About the first Salomé (2002; directed by Luca Damiano), the least said, the better: as it is, basically, a soft-porn production filmed ‘live’ in a discotheque, with everyone – from the guards to the guests – cavorting in a perennial orgy of faked, cheap thrills.

 Claudio Sestieri’s Chiamami Salomé, on the other hand, takes its subject-matter a bit more seriously (although it, too, evolves around an all-night masquerade, but with a different, less titillating, purpose). It was completed in late 2005, but only released in May 2008, due to distribution problems. Even then, it was only shown in four cities: two in the South (Rome, Naples) and two up North (Turin, Milan), and for a very limited run, too.

Like Wilde’s tragedy, Chiamami Salomé (which is 95 minutes long), also makes use of the so-called Aristotelian unities of place, time and action. The events, which are set in contemporary Italy, consequently occur in the course of a single night, during a private, ‘rave’ party that takes place in an abandoned factory in the outskirts of Rome, constantly illuminated by the intruding rays of a full moon.

The names of the characters are all Wilde’s, but here they function as nicknames instead. ‘Herod’ (Ernesto Mahieux) is now a Neapolitan Mafia boss whose power is being sapped by his wife and step-daughter (to whom he is fatally attracted); Giovanni (Elio Germano) is the kidnapped, schizophrenic son of an industrialist who believes he’s the reincarnation of John the Baptist. He only appears at the very end, and for less than ten minutes, although his screaming voice can be heard throughout the film, hurling abuse from the parked van where he is kept a prisoner. ‘Herodias’ (Caterina Vertova) is the ‘dark lady’ in this movie whose claustrophobic mood is meant to pay tribute to the classical, Hollywood film noir; whereas ‘Salomé’ (Carolina Felline) is a spurned, vicious Lolita whose languid dance is not so much erotic as melancholy, marking her impossible longing for Giovanni’s body which she knows will result in his imminent death.

The ongoing party, with everyone dressed up as ‘extras’ from some Roman Empire ‘blockbuster’, is being held in honour of Herod’s American partners-in-crime and these visiting Mafiosi from Las Vegas – whom the Neapolitan boss is trying to impress with his vulgar display of hospitality – are meant to reflect, and be a parallel of, the original Tetrarch’s subjugation to the Roman Empire.

Some critics have compared Chiamami Salomé’s style to that of some recent Shakespearean adaptations like Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet (1996) and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet 2000 (2000), wherein these venerable classics are ‘rejuvenated’ through a brisk, MTV video-clip- rhythm, meant to please their implicit, target audience. And so, in Sestieri’s film, Giovanni is seen sporting rattling Rasta dreadlocks and when Salomé brutally asks her step-father for the young man’s head, Herod retorts: “You’ve seen one splatter-film too many!”

Indeed, Sestieri, in an interview he gave whilst shooting the film back in 2005, declared that what had appealed to him most about Wilde’s text was its topicality, since it deals with themes like the generation gap, the abuse of power and the obsession of desire, thus making it apt for our own, equally grotesque, dark, times. Although Chiamami Salomé preserves most of Wilde’s dialogue, Sestieri plays down its symbolist dimension, preferring to give a crude depiction of how the seduction of absolute power is ‘incestuously’ linked to crime, pain and guilt, turning the misguided Salomé and Giovanni into troubled, and tormented, youths.

None of the reviews I have read were totally adverse to the film, most critics stating that Sestieri’s handling of this literary classic (all the more praiseworthy in a country that tends to ignore such adaptations for the big screen), was original in its approach, though its final goals were not fully realized. They all agree that it was nonetheless a noble failure and that, in time, it could well turn into a ‘cult movie’.

V

Al Pacino, who staged Salomé in Los Angeles back in 2006, has been promising us a new film adaptation of Wilde’s tragedy (ominously called Salomaybe) ever since that date. If it will be anything like his previous, very intriguing, Looking for Richard (1996), a documentary-cum-diary of his own work on Shakespeare’s Richard III, then it stands a strong chance of becoming a memorable one.

One final consideration, stemming from the vast amount of film versions that Salomé has engendered since the early XX century: Wilde’s text is often described as the epitome of fin-de-siècle aesthetics and poetics (to which it is generally circumscribed). Yet, its continuous popularity (and re-interpretation) not only in the field of the cinema, but also in those of poetry, prose, ballet, (rock) music, TV drama, mime (and even as a cartoon), should make us think twice about such a ‘received’ notion. The spirit, and fortune, of Wilde’s Salomé seem to belong more to our own times, than to Victoria’s. Why this should be so, would take me well beyond the scope of this present article, but it is something worth pondering about.

  • Alex R. Falzon teaches English Literature at the University of Siena. His many publications include various articles on, and critical editions of, Oscar Wilde (Mondadori: 1986; 1987; 1992). He has published books on Philip Larkin’s early poetry (ETS: 2000); on Angela Carter’s translations (Temi: 2002), and on Wilde’s Salomé seen as an alchemical allegory (Pacini: 2007). He is currently writing a book on Bob Dylan’s ‘dream-songs’.

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