Tinto Brass spent most of the first half of the 2000’s pursuing his own unique style of erotica in his films Cheeky!, Private and Monamour. However, one entry from this era of his filmography found him applying his carnal interests to a different, more ambitious kind of story. Black Angel is the film in question and its blend of World War II intrigue, drama and erotica is the best film he made during this time, giving him a unique opportunity to combine his sense of sexual politics with worldly politics.
Black Angel is adapted from Senso, a novella previously adapted for screen by Luchino Visconti, but Brass’ version updates the setting from the mid-1800’s to the final days of World War II. Livia (Anna Galiena) is the bored wife of a well-to-do Fascist official who finds herself attracted to Helmut (Gabriel Garko), a lusty German officer who is tiring of the war. The two quickly fall into a madly passionate affair. She gives herself over to him, body and soul, and helps him in a risky plan to escape as the Axis side of the war crumbles in Italy. However, the duplicitous nature of love and loyalty in wartime ensures that things will not end peacefully for either lover.
Though the tale might sound rather archetypal, Black Angel gains a lot of power from the Tinto Brass treatment. His frank depiction of sexuality not only sells the passion of the film’s central love affair but also makes the heroine’s romantic obsession convincing and heightens the dramatic stakes of the affair. He actually waits a while to dole out the more explicit lovemaking scenes but the material makes sure their unflinching carnal approach is both justified and believable: a nude romp in the surf outside a hospital and a rendezvous in a secret apartment are particularly memorable.
Better yet, Brass’ tendency towards to displays of gleeful bawdiness perfectly complements the sense of moral rot that the story evokes: an orgy scene near the end of the film’s second act is overheated in the expected Brass style but its “before the fall” mood gives a dramatic intensity to compliment its erotic displays. He also crafts an ending that puts a surprising twist on things while also pumping up the mood to operatic heights.
It also helps that both of the leads give brave, totally committed performances: Galiena captures both the repressed lustiness and the emotional fragility of her character while Garko offers an impressively poker-faced turn as her debauched, crafty lover. Even when engaging in the sex scenes, they aren’t just romping for the camera – the sex is an extension of their performances. The romantic yet decadent mood is sealed by an appropriately “overripe” visual and aural style, with lush cinematography from Daniele Nannuzzi and a lavish, romantic score from Ennio Morricone.
Simply put, Black Angel is the masterpiece of Tinto Brass’ latter-day era, a moment where he found the right serious material to match his flair for decadent eroticism. Any student of his films should see it – and anyone interested in how artful an erotic film can be will enjoy it.