In a way, Liliana Cavani’s The Skin has an uphill journey. It’s similar to the journey that American soldiers in 1943 take while ‘liberating’ Naples from the Fascists. There’s one thing makes this film difficult to like right off the bat. And that thing is the way it underuses two of its marquee stars. The first of those is Claudia Cardinale, who looks more svelte than she did in Fitzcarraldo. Sadly, cleaning her up doesn’t always mean that the film is letting her stand out. Cardinale seems like a one-scene queen during the 80s, although the reason behind that can be subject to light research. Anyway, The Skin‘s second underused star is its biggest- Burt Lancaster, but in fairness his C-plot still takes a big chunk within the film’s 130ish munite running time.
After ‘liberating’ Naples, his character, General Clark, in charge of finding hundreds Fascists who are hiding in one of Naples’ caves. He does his jobs in boardrooms and palaces, insulated from the postwar atrocities happening in the streets. In a way, Clark is the anti-Patton. The Patton archetype is someone who fetishizes Europe’s brutal history. General Clark, on the other hand, is the more archetypal character who is ignorant of the country he’s ‘liberating’. There may be some actual liberation taking place, but the soldiers here are also going through as many mostly female sex workers who go into the business willingly or otherwise. But I keep forgetting to write about two things.
First yes, half of the cast is American but no, Cavani chooses to dub everyone in Italian with no discernable accents to separate the characters by nationality. This is one of the greater and more challenging aspects of the film, as she subverts Anglo-American dominance in storytelling. The second thing I’m remembering to write about is its A-plot, about the unlikely friendship between two men. One is the fictional version of the film’s protagonist, Italian turncoat Curzio Malaparte (Marcello Mastroianni), Malaparte, by the way, is the author of the film’s source material. The other is the relatively lower ranking American Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall). Both of them feel ‘love’ towards women (Alexandra King and Liliana Tari) outside of their nationalities, as one does during war.
The Skin has a more and obvious European cynicism in its perspective of war. It keeps its characters at a distance while letting its viewers anticipate the horrors they eventually must face. The thing about keeping its distance is that we don’t feel these horrors when they do happen, especially to women. I still recognize the distinct voices that produced such a work. Even if yes, I’m putting this in the interesting failure cabinet. This is also the second time in Cannes’ MUBI retrospective that they have a flop and a deep cut from an auetur. Although now I wonder what would happen had I started with Cavani’s more famous and more shocking work. Lastly, Catherine Brelliat working on the screenplay makes so much sense.
Watch The Skin on MUBI.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Drama, War
- Directed by: Liliana Cavani
- Starring: Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Marcello Mastroianni
- Produced by: Filippo Campus, Richard Borg
- Written by: Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Robert Katz
- Studio: Gaumont, Opera Film Produzione