English Title: The Arcane Sorcerer/The Mysterious Enchanter
Original Title: L’arcano incantatore
Country of Origin: Italy
Studio: Filmauro, Duea Film
Director: Pupi Avati
Producer(s): Antonio Avati, Aurelio De Laurentiis
Screenplay: Pupi Avati
Cinematographer: Cesare Bastelli
Art Director: Giuseppe Pirrotta
Editor: Amedeo Salfa
Runtime: 96 minutes
Genre: Gothic horror
Starring/Cast: Carlo Cecchi, Stefano Dionisi, Mario Erpichini, Andrea Scorzoni
Bologna, 1750. After having being expelled from the seminary for making a woman pregnant and then persuading her to have an abortion, Giacomo accepts an assigment as an assistant and scribe to a priest who has been excommunicated for his research into esoteric practices and now lives isolated in a tower in the countryside. Giacomo soon hears rumours that his predecessor, Nerio, who is now buried in unconsecrated ground in the tower’s grounds, was suspected of having been a disciple of the Devil and of having murdered two nuns. As Giacomo assists the priest in his experiments and delivers secret messages in code, strange nocturnal events begin to transpire and Giacomo begins to believe that there may be some truth to the rumours about Nerio.
Although best known for his work in other genres, Pupi Avati also directed a number of horror films in the 1970s including the remarkable La casa dalle finestre che ridono/ The House of the Laughing Windows (1976) and Zeder (1983). His return to the genre with L’arcano incantatore is notable above all for being the only significant example of the gothic horror genre to be produced in Italy over the past two decades. Like most of Avati’s work it is in an independent production by the company he runs with his brother Antonio, Duea Film (in collaboration with Filmauro), and takes place in the countryside of his native Emilia Romania. The geographical and temporal setting is central to the film’s project and Avati goes to great lengths to convey the intellectual and religious culture of seventeenth century rural Italy. By establishing a climate of superstition and belief in the supernatural, Avati helps render plausible the kind of events that early Italian gothic films mostly took for granted. This attention to historical reconstruction is reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa/ The Name of the Rose, which also revolved around crimes within a religious setting and hinged on the discovery of a secret manuscript and the deciphering of a code.
Like so much of Avati’s cinema, the film is elegantly realized with a care and attention to detail lacking from the more formulaic Italian gothic horrors of the Sixties. Particularly notable is the film’s play with light and shadow, which perfectly dramatizes the film’s central theme of the persistence of superstitious beliefs prior to the Enlightenment. Yet the film is both less transgressive and less perverse than earlier Italian gothic horror films and for this reason it comes across as less incisive. (It is significant that, despite the dearth of Italian horror films in the Nineties, the film has not enjoyed the attention from genre aficionados afforded to Avati’s earlier genre efforts or more recent films like Dellamorte Dellamore/ Cemetery Man, 1994, Michele Soavi.) Although there are some effectively spooky moments – above all a scene in the library when a figure Giacomo believes to be the priest turns out to be someone else entirely – the ending is somewhat flat and the film’s horrors never achieve the frisson of Avati’s earlier work in the genre. Nevertheless, L’arcano incantatore is an intelligent, mature and stylish work that proves that Italian cinema remains capable of producing quality films within the genre of gothic horror.