Alice (Florinda Bolkan), a translator, awakes in her apartment from a dream of a half forgotten old movie about a sinister scientist (Klaus Kinski) who strands an astronaut on the moon as part of some disturbing experiment. Shaken by her dream, Alice nevertheless goes to work only to discover from her employer that she has been missing for three days. Fearful that she has suffered some sort of amnesia, Alice begins to piece together some cryptic clues which take her to the seaside village of Garma. In Garma, Alice retraces her steps and encounters a little girl named Paula (Nicoletta Elmi), an elderly woman named Mrs. Heim (Lila Kedrova) and a man calling himself Harry (Peter McEnery) who may hold the key to Alice’s missing days.
Oblique, dreamy, and breathtakingly beautiful, Luigi Bazzoni’s Le orme (1975) is one of the great unheralded classics of the Italian cinema. As Kier-La Janisse points out in her introduction to the film on the Severin Blu-Ray release, legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shoots the entire picture like some faded old picture postcard. This metaphor not only ties in with one of the clues Alice has seemingly left behind for herself, but gets to the heart of the very nature of Le orme.
The central theme of Le orme is how we make sense of our memories. In the context of the film memories exist as postcards and old movies that are broadcasted straight into the mind. The reality of past experience becomes associated with these objects and images just as much as it becomes incorporated into them. For Alice the picture postcard that she discovers in her waste basket is a cue that unlocks a steady stream of slowly revealed details whose blanks have been filled by some terrifying science fiction film that she saw as a child.
The cryptic testimonies that Alice slowly gathers reinforces this notion that memory and the act of remembrance are intrinsically fluid and unfixed; caught in states of both perpetual motion and change. While Harry may be safeguarding some awful truth, Mrs. Heim and Paula are caught are acting on their imperfect memories. Alice’s gradual descent into madness is primarily predicated by her inability to make sense of all the differing accounts that she encounters, both from within and from without.
Filmmaker Luigi Bazzoni is clever enough not to treat Le orme as some pulpy mystery thriller. Instead Bazzoni opts to create a film of sustained rhythms and tensions in which a sense of eerie foreboding permeates every frame. Le orme, in Bazzoni’s hands, isn’t a film about a woman uncovering some Gothic mystery or despicable crime, it’s a study of the terror of never truly knowing one’s self. The nightmarishly surreal conclusion of Le orme suggests that such an endeavor is virtually impossible and that the real danger is in becoming obsessed with this internal unknowing.