La Orca

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La Orca (1976) is an Italian crime film directed by Eriprando Visconti, the nephew of Luchino Visconti. Possibly inspired by the abduction of Patty Hearst in 1974, La Orca tells the tale of the kidnapping of a young woman of a wealthy family by a handful of criminals. Despite the lurid promotional materials for La Orca the film is hardly as sleazy as one would suspect.

The dramatic focus of La Orca is not rooted in the harrowing experiences of the captive Alice (Rena Niehaus). Instead Visconti is more interested in the lives of the small time crooks who have been hired to abduct the heiress. Visconti’s directorial style draws on the neorealist films of the forties and fifties as a means of establishing a credible milieu in which the criminal characters exist. As these crooks go about selling black market cigarettes, worrying about their families, and playing pool Visconti’s camera maintains a subtle distance. When Alice is not a part of a scene, Visconti opts to shoot in medium-wide shots. This creates a quiet theatricality to the proceedings that calls attention to the spectator’s own implicit voyeurism, aligning their experiences with those of Michele (Michele Placido).

Unlike the other abductors, Michele is the only one who remains in the abandoned farm house for the entirety of Alice’s captivity. Michele is the one who forms a bond with Alice while she in turn exploits his interest in her to ensure her escape. In the scenes between these two characters Visconti adopts a totally different and far more expressionistic visual style. In these scenes the camera is constantly reinforcing Michele’s perspective via slow pans and close-ups of Alice’s body. As Michele molests the restrained Alice, Visconti’s camera fetishizes her body, reducing her to an object of titillating desire.

However, this emphasis on Michele’s subjective experience of his encounters with Alice gradually changes as she exerts more and more control over Michele. Close-ups of her breasts and buttocks are replaced within this image complex by close-ups of her expressionless face. It’s clear in these close-ups that Niehaus is playing more than just a hostage. In her eyes one can see that Alice is thinking, plotting. The audience is aware, long before Michele is, that Alice has essentially cornered Michele and that there is no chance he will ever get away with his crime.

Yet, the most evocative sequences in La Orca are contained in one scene that comes in the form of a sort of waking fantasy that Michele has early on about Alice. This scene is also the only scene that makes use of Federico Monti Arduini’s romantic score for the film. The waking dream begins almost as a flashback to Michele working off the coast of southern Italy on a fishing ship. The emphasis is, at first, on his labors. Then Visconti introduces a passing sailing ship on which Michele glimpses a nude Alice. Then the fantasy changes and Michele is aboard Alice’s boat. She is chained on the deck and he is at the wheel. Visconti cuts back and forth between static close-ups of Michele’s eyes gazing at Alice to rapid pans of Alice squirming on the deck. As Michele finally moves to go to Alice she becomes an ornate Madonna and Michele crosses himself.

This dream sequence is replete with contradictory symbols that are derived from Catholic culture. Alice, representing women, is seen by her captor as both a mother and as a whore. For Michele Alice’s perfection comes from the fact that for him she embodies both. This also reveals the fundamentally misogynistic ideologies that give rationale to both the type of crime depicted in the film as well as well the very genre of the film itself. The audience is clearly being instructed to interpret Michele’s perceptions as the cause for the success of Alice’s deceptions and clever manipulations. That is to say that if Michele had not seen Alice as both Madonna and whore he would not have been so easily taken in by Alice.

La Orca ends as only it can. This intrinsically misogynistic fantasy concludes with the police arriving at the abandoned farmhouse. Cornered and in a panic, Michele appeals to Alice who he believes has truly fallen in love with him. Alice, fetishized and idealized by both Michele and Visconti, deals her captor a fatal gunshot wound through the chest. In this moment Alice is not seen in La Orca to be free but rather true to her nature, at least in the eyes of the film. She has cut Michele off from any hope of redemption.

Visconti cleverly disguises the misogyny of La Orca within a clumsy commentary on class. Alice is wealthy and her captors are poor which Visconti assumes will win the audience over to the side of the criminals. It’s a testament to his ability as a director that, in a few instances, this ploy actually works. Perhaps if the images of Michele and Alice weren’t as striking and unsettling Visconti’s tactic would have been more affecting.

It cannot be stressed enough that no matter how one feels about the narrative content of La Orca it is still a rather singular piece of genre filmmaking. Few Italian exploitation films of this period move at such a glacial pace with an emphasis on the process of criminal work and logistics. There’s something about La Orca‘s treatment of and empathy for its criminal characters and their world that recalls John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II (1975). Though an obscure film, La Orca is definitely worth seeking out.