La Chiesa

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La Chiesa (1989) was the first collaboration between Dario Argento and Michele Soavi with the former producing and the latter directing. La Chiesa shares similar themes and images with Argento’s film Inferno (1980) as well as a reverence for the films of Mario Bava. In this respect Argento can be seen as a co-author of the film even though it is very much Soavi’s project.

La Chiesa opens with a bloodbath as knights of the Teutonic Order massacre a village of alleged witches. The massacre is rendered with numerous rapidly paced jump cuts that condense the massacre to a dozen brief details of horrific violence. The editing strategy of this prologue is unique from the rest of the film which is divided between two aesthetic halves. The remainder of the film is also set in contemporary Europe as opposed to the Middle Ages.

The first half in modern times is a deliberately paced Gothic mystery. The tone and look of this section of La Chiesa recalls the Hammer films of the early sixties and the Val Lewton thrillers of the forties. Information is obscured in shadowy, moody images and playful camera moves that are motivated more by ambience than narrative. Scenes of mystery are juxtaposed with domestic scenes that are framed with the shallow depth of field of a Giotto tableau.

The remainder of La Chiesa becomes a hallucinatory explosion of practical effects, kinetic camera moves, gore, and sex. This section of the film is a kind of fusion of Inferno‘s excess with The Keep‘s (1983) operatic tone. This portion of the film dispenses with the logic inherent to a mystery and embraces pure cinematic spectacle. And it is a spectacle motivated by imagination rather than cause or effect. This section of the film is home to the incredible sex scenes between Barbara Cupisti and a giant rubber Satan.

With every act the focus of La Chiesa changes and so do its main characters. At first the film looks to be about Cupisti and Tomas Arana before focusing on Hugh Quarshire. These abrupt shifts are not uncommon in Argento’s work but in Soavi’s hands these transitions and shifts of focus feel even more fluid and natural.

La Chiesa is a masterpiece of Italian horror because it so effectively distills that idiom down to nothing but its greatest aesthetic assets. The final portion of La Chiesa in particular is an inspired fever dream of pure horror filmmaking. In some ways La Chiesa even outdoes Argento’s own works in the genre.