Director Salvatore Samperi, the maestro dell’erotismo all’italiana best known for the 1973 social/sex comedy Malicious / Malizia, died at age 64 on March 4 in Bracciano, near Rome.
Invariably pushing the boundaries of the socially – and erotically – acceptable by the hypocritical, image-conscious bourgeoisie in Italy and elsewhere, the Padua-born (July 26, 1944), former left-wing militant tackled subjects that American movies, with rare exceptions, wouldn’t dare get close to then or now.
For instance, Thank You, Aunt / Grazie, Zia (1968), his feature-film debut (inspired by mentor Marco Bellocchio’s I Pugni in tasca / Fist in His Pocket), tells the story of a wealthy young man (Fist in His Pocket leading man Lou Castel) who plays psychosexual games with his doctor-aunt (Lisa Gastoni); Cuore di Mamma / Mother’s Heart (1969) follows a (dialogue-less) disillusioned divorcee and mother of three (Carla Gravina) who becomes a terrorist; Scandalo (1976) has a wife and mother and pharmacist (Gastoni again) turning into the sex slave of a customer (Franco Nero) in 1940 France; and in the anti-war Sturmtruppen / Stormtroopers (1976) a doltish military unit is headed by a general high on cocaine. (Sturmtruppen II followed in 1982.)
In the quite watchable Malizia, Italian Film Critics’ Silver Ribbon winner Laura Antonelli plays a sensuous maid who has sex with a 14-year-old blackmailing Sicilian (Alessandro Momo) in order to ensure her marriage to his rich, widowed father (Turi Ferro). Prudish Italians were horrified. After all, those things happened in Albania, not Italy. Needless to say, Malizia became a box office sensation.
Comparing it to Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style, Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that Malizia “is a softer, less satiric comedy, but its preoccupation with sex is often very funny. It’s also reassuring: There’s at least one place on earth today where, because of societal taboos, the pursuit of sex can still be a satisfactory, full-time avocation.” (A 1991 update, Malizia 2000, also starring Antonelli, was a commercial failure.)
Another remarkable film in Samperi’s career is the beautifully shot 1979 drama Ernesto, from Umberto Saba’s autobiographical novel, in which in early 20th-century Trieste an upper-class, musically inclined, half-Jewish teenager (Martin Halm) becomes sexually involved with a dock worker (Silver Bear winner Michele Placido), and later develops an intense relationship with a fellow violin player and his twin sister (both played by Lara Wendel). Veteran Virna Lisi played the mother of the title character.
Samperi all but retired after the Malizia 2000 flop, but more recently returned to work as a television director. Among his last efforts were Madame (2004) and the successful L’onore e il rispetto / Honor and Respect (2006).