Black Journal (originally titled Gran Bollito) is a 1977 Italian drama film directed by Mauro Bolognini. It is based on the real life events of Leonarda Cianciulli, the Italian serial killer best known as the "Soap-Maker of Correggio".
There's something to be said about a film that nails ambiance. Without that pitch-perfect sense of atmosphere, a film can fall apart at the seams and become an unraveled mess. A film thriller that is too funny stops being thrilling and difficult to take earnestly. A drama without any genuine human emotion behind it becomes a slog to finish. Mauro Bolognini's 1977 thriller 'Gran Bollito' (a.k.a. Black Journal) starring Shelly Winters and Max Von Sydow ups the ante when it comes to establishing tone and atmosphere. A seemingly bizarre choice of casting men to play female characters pays off when the disturbing and askew story mechanics reveal a taught serial killer thriller.
Lea (Shelley Winters) has lived a life of sadness and strife. After nearly a dozen unsuccessful pregnancies or the child died young, her one and only adult son Michele (Antonio Marsina) is of an age to marry and go out into the world. Having to take care of her invalid husband (Mario Scaccia), Lea's over-protective nature soon drives her to insanity. Working as a lottery clerk from her tenement building, Lea tries to integrate herself into the lives of her neighbors like the fearful Lisa (Max Von Sydow). But when she learns of another neighbor's attraction towards her son, Lea's only solution is cold blooded murder. As her fractured mental state forces her to kill, again and again, Lea is left with the unique conundrum of having to dispose of the bodies.
Loosely based on the real-life murders committed by Leonarda Cianciulli in the late 1930s and early 1940s, 'Gran Bollito' leaves this reviewer positively stuck in the mud. I simply don't know how to detail how interesting and unique this movie is in any real detailed way less I accidentally divulge some sort of spoiler. So as I plunge into this review, please forgive my tendencies to talk about plot in an abstract way rather than giving a point by point analysis. While the film itself is a bit flawed and more than a little bizarre, I have to admit to enjoying the hell out of it - once I got used to what the hell I was seeing.
If you're going into 'Gran Bollito' cold as a cucumber as I did without any prior knowledge or reference for the film, you may be taken aback by the first sight of the legendary Max Von Sydow dressed as and for all intents and purposes playing a woman. Sydow isn't alone in this strange casting game either; Renato Pozzetto is featured as Stella and Alberto Lionello as Berta. On to of playing women, each of these men play multiple roles coming in at different points leading to a strange representation of Lea's mental state.
While I fully understand that a simple Google search will betray what I am trying to keep under wraps - the real-life serial killer's branded title pretty much gives away what Lea does with the bodies - I want to keep that aspect a secret for now. Going into 'Gran Bollito' I only knew that this movie was a strange thriller with a great performance from Shelly Winters. To her credit, Winters manages to portray a unique brand of crazy in this strange and off-kilter film. At first, I thought I was watching some sort of comedy. After all, whenever you see a female character obviously played by a butch and masculine man with a clear five o'clock shadow - you're naturally going to snicker a little. But when the A plot really kicks into gear and Winter's Lea becomes a brutal killer, you start to understand and appreciate these seemingly nonsensical casting decisions. Aiding the film's presentation is the fact that none of these men play their female counterparts with any sort of camp or over-the-top femininity. It's jarring to see Sydow in a wig after knowing the man for the better part of 30 years as Emperor Ming, but those uncertain feelings subside quickly as the actor dissolves into the role of a woman afraid the devil lusts for her.
Taken as a whole, 'Gran Bollito' is a very weird yet oddly satisfying thriller. It takes some time to get its wheels rolling. The first few times you encounter men acting as women, it's a bit odd, but once Winters settles into her role, details her strange history of children dying entirely too young, any intentional or unintentional humor quickly slides away into genuine creepiness. The film also has a sly political undertone throughout that proves to be an interesting if not a bit chilling payoff at the very end. If you're someone with a taste for the stranger side of cinema or are interested in finding something a little more unorthodox for your next viewing, I strongly encourage you to give 'Gran Bollito' a look. Give it the time it's due to get the ball rolling and I'm sure you'll come away more than satisfied by this little Italian thriller.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Gran Bollito' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc. Housed in a clear standard Blu-ray case, the disc comes with a booklet containing stills from the film as well as a terrific essay by Film Historian Julie Kirgo. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
With a 1080p 1.85:1 transfer, 'Gran Bollito' is a case of as good as can possibly be. While the film retains a present grain structure with some decent detail levels, there is a prevailing softness to the image. This could well be intentional, the softness does provide a sort of dream-like ambiance to setting and tone, but at the same time, it has a tendency to flatten the image and dull the colors. In fact, a lot of the time the image can almost feel like an old kinescope transfer where there are certainly fine facial details and costuming to appreciate, but beyond the mid-range, there is a flatness and a haze. Colors appear on the brighter side of things with tweaked contrast levels that are pretty common in a number of Italian films from this late 70s early 80s era. Black levels, as I said are dark, but on the hazy side of things with only small dips into the desirable inky tones that would give the image a better range of depth. The print sourced for this transfer is in fairly good shape, only some mild speckling and very fine scratches ever appear. All around this is a solid transfer and the visual stylings work well for this sort of period piece thriller, but the final results may not be the demo-worthy transfer fans may have been hoping for.
'Gran Bollito' arrives with a traditionally very Italian sounding Italian DTS-HD MA 1.0 mix with English subtitles. I say "Italian sounding" because if you've watched enough Italian films you know that dialogue wasn't recorded on the spot and had to be looped in later giving the mix a flat, sort of canned quality. On top of that is the fact that better than half the actors are clearly speaking English but are dubbed over in Italian by voice artists that don't match the timber of the performer. But these are minor quibbles really and aren't artifacts of the audio transfer but indicative of the source elements and the filmmaking process itself. Sound effects have that strangely heightened reality to them where they tend to sound just a few octaves too high or too depressed - and yet are still incredibly effective. As a mono presentation, this mix is effective with an authentic feel to the film itself as it doesn't sound like there was too much processing or manipulation that can happen when a track of this sort is processed into stereo or surround sound. Some slight hiss can creep in here and there, but otherwise, this track is free of any sort of age-related wear and tear.
Audio Commentary: Film Historians Derek Botelho and David Del Valle provide an informative and engaging commentary track. The pair offers up a lot of information about the production, the shooting, casting, as well as a number of interesting tidbits about the actual serial killer which this story is based. Well worth the listen.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 3:35)
'Gran Bollito' is a strange and surreal thriller. At equal times it's comedic and horrifying. Featuring stellar performances from Shelly Winters, Max Von Sydow and a host of other great actors in unconventional roles, the film proves to be a creepy and entertaining watch. Twilight Time brings 'Gran Bollito' to Blu-ray in fine order with a solid A/V presentation. A terrific audio commentary is the only significant bonus feature. At the end of the day, this movie may be too strange for some to get into, but those who give it the time should find it rewarding. Worth a look.