Is it just me, or is there something deeply inauthentic about Santa Sangre? Like the blood-and-fun macabre of Claudio’s older brother, Dario, Santa Sangre isn’t about any of the things that it purports to be about. That’s part of the lineage. But it also runs short on fun in favor of something grander; the question is, do those grand pursuits yield anything weightier than pretension?
I guess I should explain what I mean, when I say that Italian horror is seldom “about what it’s about.” In Santa Sangre, we’re “dealing with” marginalized people clashing with fascist/religious authority, with the pseudo Freudian presence of the domineering mother in the son’s sexual drives, and with the violent legacy of jealousy in the trans-generational psyche.
But these elements are explored only visually. And the visuals are only working to aestheticize violence, to create a beautiful world for horror to occur in. There’s blood, symbolizing blood, and knives, symbolizing knives. The mother/son sexual baggage is not so much explored as summoned up, referenced as touchstone, conveniently dragged out of the cinematic closet rather than the historical or the psychological one. We learn nothing after the assumption.
Example: the mother domineers her son’s sexual drives. That’s it. No comment. Just the fact, and the way it can make for a delicious narrative sequence, rich with the stabbings. But you can get this quicker and dirtier somewhere else. In fact, I think even a little movie called Psycho would suffice, and that one’s hardly inelegant. I’m not convinced that Jodorowsky or Claudio Argento have grappled with their mothers demanding they commit violent acts, out of jealousy for their son’s “misdirected” sexual urges. Maybe I’m being insensitive. Maybe I’m just not psychologically complex. I just don’t believe that the movie is grappling with this on any other level than the “wouldn’t it be weird…” one. And I don’t think Santa Sangre stumbles across many observations on the way.
As for the marginalized people versus the established order, they get maybe two scenes in the first half of the film. Then that thematic lineage is sloughed off like so much molted chitin, so that something more fun can take its place. My take is, if you’re movie is about basic pleasures: own it.
There’s no precise giveaway that the movie is insincere, only a two-hour unfolding of evidence. Santa Sangre seems to be dreaming of transcending its own tradition, but winds up wallowing in it. The visuals are often beautiful, as when a puppet elephant hemorrhages blood from its trunk while surrounded by earnestly grieving circus performers, or a grotesquely obese exprostitute strokes a puppy while watching a team of lucha libre wrestlers fail to bring down a single transsexual strongman.
But the movie’s surrealism doesn’t go so far as to suggest anything in particular. Nor can we consider the film a (truly) surreally ideological affront to some established order. (What order would that be exactly?) The Giallo tradition is the only one shining through in an authentic way (although, you gotta hand it to Jodorowsky, he can evoke, less substantially but no-less uncannily, early Bunuel and late Fellini at the drop of a hat) and only after being stripped of much of its fun by dilution. The beautiful visual set-pieces are, yes, getting in the way of the bloody evisceration. The good taste is getting in the way of the bad.