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Brassed On: Rediscovering the Indiscreet Charms of an Italian Softcore Maestro’s Early Work

L’Urlo

Director Tinto Brass should be in the pantheon of Italian cinema, but he lives in infamy: He disowned his best-known work — the star-studded hardcore epic Caligula (1979), crudely recut by producer Bob “Penthouse” Guccione; his subsequent softcore stories are considered cult items among connoisseurs of Euro-erotica. Some of these notoriously bottom-heavy sex films have a decadent Luchino Visconti vibe, but they hardly prepare one for the wild surprises of early Brass. The seldom-screened and exceedingly trippy trifecta of movies in Cinefamily’s “The Psychedelic ’60s of Tinto Brass” suggests Brass’ unexpected kinship with celebrated art-house auteurs, copious trademark nudity notwithstanding — a shamelessly entertaining riposte to the zeitgeist essays of Jean-Luc Godard, indulging in a heady delirium close to Dusan Makavejev’s Wilhelm Reich agitprop.

The Italo Western Yankee (1966) established Brass as a preeminent visual stylist — it’s a great example of comic book aesthetics applied to narrative film; consequently, he teamed up with cult cartoonist Guido Crepax for 1967’s tantalizing thriller implosion Deadly Sweet (screening April 17). Do not waste time on following the pieces of plot (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Ewa Aulin, murders, dwarf) floating through densely edited, brightly colored flashes of billboard-strewn pop art panels. Crime-movie mechanics playfully auto-destruct: The strained seriousness of Michelangelo Antonioni’s similar Blow-Up is parodied by restaging a key scene, a coup then capped by quoting Antonioni in ponderous voice-over. More fragmentation arrives with Nerosubianco (1969), a mostly improvised ultra-rarity (showing on April 3), in which a married woman’s sudden infatuation with an African-American leads to a surreal tour of hippie sights while a Procol Harum spinoff band drones on.

Even farther out is 1970’s L’Urlo (screening April 10), which — inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s Beatnik chant “Howl” — has an unlikely couple staggering through demented psychosocial tableaux: Attacked by policemen (sped-up Keystone Cops style) and gang-raping soldiers, they join some sort of youth revolt. Busses burn, perverse fetishes abound, a self-proclaimed philosopher regresses to prehistoric cannibalism. Still the (otherwise dada) voice-over claims “this is a simple documentary,” even as the happenings are merrily pulverized in mind-fuck montage patterns. The rejection of coherence fits the blithely anti-authoritarian agenda, which makes L’Urlo a key work, culminating in a dictum that hints at Brass’ subsequent career in the erotic genre: “Logic is always false — like morale.” (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater; Fridays at midnight; thru Fri., April 17. www.cinefamily.org.)