It all began with Stelvio Cipriani’s beautiful compositions and the algorithms dictating YouTube’s music playlists. That’s what introduced me to Femina Ridens nearly a year ago, and that film in turn unlocked many rabbit holes which I have been exploring from that day on. Since I loved Ridens so much, I was encouraged to check out other art-house, soft-core erotica films from the ’60s, as well as the Italian giallo genre and of course, anything else Stelvio Cipriani has lent his talents to. It was a month or two ago when YouTube’s music suggestions acquainted me to another Cipriani soundtrack, this time for Uccidere in Silenzio, or translated to English, To Kill in Silence. Listen to this particular track embedded directly below, it just may be the single most gorgeous song I’ve ever heard from any film score–even rivaling Stelvio’s own work on Ridens and Bernard Herrmann’s for Vertigo. (Anyone who knows how much I love those two soundtracks can appreciate that this is not praise I offer lightly.)
Googling the title as I had for Femina Ridens revealed that To Kill in Silence is about two teenage lovers and the girl gets pregnant after they have sex. She debates getting an abortion or not, is pressured to by her mom and boyfriend, but ultimately decides not to go through with it. The boyfriend independently comes around too and they decide to raise the child together. My initial reaction upon reading the synopsis was mixed–it definitely sounded far less interesting than Ridens, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t be some great moments worth checking out anyway.
A Hair’s Breadth From Oblivion
Well, that settled it for me. Just like when I first heard “Mary’s Theme” so long ago, I simply had to see this movie. I searched Google for the English and Italian titles, going as far as the results page limits would allow. I used boolean language, included or removed the year of release and other possible identifiers but there was little to be found. Any sites mentioning the film’s existence only offered cursory information (director’s name, stars’ names, etc) but there were nothing substantial. There’s no English Wikipedia article, the Italian Wikipedia article was a stub, IMDb only has 10 (!) individual ratings and no reviews. There are no blog posts where anyone else has discussed the subject as I’m doing now, and I could find only one forum where the film has been discussed–in Italian.
In terms of trying to watch the damn thing, I was stymied for a long time. There’s no official DVD/Blu-ray for purchase anywhere on the web that I can find, nor any VHS/Betamax/Laserdisc in English for that matter. (I did manage to find a single, lone source on the Italian web offering an old VHS print from the ’80s but that’s it as far as known, official releases go.) There’s no torrents, online streaming nor any individual scenes on video sharing sites like YouTube either. I eventually came across someone on Italian-Ebay who was selling Uccidere in Silenzio in 16mm film stock! ($100+ is outside of my price range for something I hadn’t even seen yet, and I’d have no way to play the thing, plus with as rare as this movie is, I think someone trained in film stock preservation should be the one to purchase it.) Besides these scant beyond-my-price-range prints floating around, the only physical media related to Silence that’s available for purchase on Amazon, Ebay or anything else I could see (English or Italian web) are posters and of course, the fantastic Stelvio Cipriani soundtrack. To the best of my knowledge, that’s all there is to prove this movie ever existed.
I did finally track down one additional vendor, a place called DVDLady.com who claimed to be offering copies in a price range I could justify shelling out for a film I wasn’t even sure I’d like, and I was desperate enough to take a risk. I’d gambled with other unproven online retailers before and been rewarded with my bootleg set of Clarissa Explains It All DVDs. So I took the plunge and…they came through! I am currently in the process of uploading the film to YouTube, Internet Archive, Dailymotion and Vimeo so as to have digital copies floating around for posterity. I would never do something like that otherwise but if a film’s teetering on being lost, the owners clearly aren’t interested in official releases for profit, then I truly consider it a public duty to share this with everyone. Someone needs to create some backup copies for preservation. (Who knows how long DVDLady will be active, or what condition those other sources are in and if there’s even any other copies floating around.)
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, in the information age there’s no excuse in the world for media to go missing anymore. From this point forward in our history, every lost film/document/artwork is a testament to our own collective carelessness and neglect. If it’s too niche for the owners to offer a mass release, then just give collectors like myself a made-to-order set. I’m not asking for a two-disc special edition with commentary tracks and a professional case, though that would certainly be nice. A DVD-R in a paper sleeve in the mail would suffice. Or hell, just provide a paid download on a website or paid YouTube streaming. Is that so hard?
The Condition of My Personal Copy & Its Implication for the Movie’s Ongoing Survival
So, to begin with, my copy (a digital download) isn’t very good. I don’t blame the folks at DVDLady for that, though perhaps the spotty condition could have been better advertised. (But lord knows I would have bought it anyway.) It’s definitely sourced from an old beat up VHS judging by the presence of “tape static,” and that tape in turn was itself probably sourced from a faded print considering all the film grain and yellowed color palette. (These quality issues are not the result of a badly compressed digital file because the size was nearly 2 Gigabytes in addition to the other context clues.) Who on Earth knows where DVDLady managed to get their private master copy. There’s the aforementioned Italian VHS release from the ’80s which we can be certain existed. That seems like the most likely candidate barring new information about other releases. If so, this videotape certainly had a limited run and was never brought to successor formats (like Laserdisc or DVD) nor was any home video release likely done stateside, otherwise surely, some second hand copies would be floating out there on Ebay or Amazon somewhere. It’s my speculation that To Kill in Silence was probably already obscure even by the time of that ’80s Italian VHS tape release and has only just barely managed to survive the decades since then on a few scattered tapes and a handful of 16mm prints.
The subtitles I was given came in a separate download file…and they’re pretty atrocious. There are several stretches here and there where people are speaking and the subtitles aren’t updated, so I have little insight into what the characters are saying. When the captions do appear, they’re often not grammatically correct in English, sometimes they’re outright gibberish, leading me to believe this was just plugged into Google translate or some shit. This makes me wonder if indeed there even exists a professional, satisfactory set of subtitles available for this film at all, in anyone’s possession. That’s to say nothing for the remote-as-hell possibility of an English dub floating out there somewhere. One can dream, but with only two other sources in my knowledge carrying this film in any capacity, both of whom are from Italians, I’m not holding out much hope of any English sub or dub ever turning up. Please, if any Italian speakers out there would be willing to offer transcriptions for better subtitles (unlikely I know) or if anyone out there knows more about this movie and details of its US screening or possible home media releases, please do contact me.
Taking all of these distressing factors into account, I worry that the day may come, and sooner rather than later, when physical copies, much less high quality prints of To Kill in Silence really are gone for good. With so few places where a copy can be found, two of them surely in poor condition (the DVDLady print as well as a hand me down 40 year old VHS) and perhaps no version decipherable to English speakers, this film’s future is very precarious indeed and it’s in desperate need of a comprehensive restoration effort now before it’s too late. Sadly, with how widely unknown Silence is, and how contemptuous its reputation is to most who have actually seen it, [see the section below] I am skeptical if that will ever happen.
Is To Kill in Silence Worth All This Hassle?
Now, I’m sure many would say that it’s no great loss not to be able to see this thing. Reviews range from middling at best to scathing at worst according to my research–and to make it clear once more how overlooked this film is, I couldn’t find any review longer than five sentences. The most common criticism I’ve seen is that To Kill in Silence is nothing more than an anti-abortion screed dressed up in a manipulative melodrama. The intermittent cuts to the child-to-be almost guilting the audience with his cuteness are certainly heavy-handed regardless of whether anyone agrees with the movie’s position or not. Nevertheless, I feel it ought to be possible for us to analyze the film on its own aesthetic merits outside the, (according to some,) disagreeable thesis it’s supporting. Anyway, at least Silence has a thoughtful message to convey and when watching I could tell that genuine heart was put into the production. That’s more than can be said for at least half of the big established-brand blockbusters Hollywood cynically churns out for profit. Personally, I’ll take a flawed or even terrible labor of love from a dedicated artist over a hallow piece of corporate product any day.
Whatever one thinks of To Kill in Silence‘s heavy handed pro-choice political message, (and for whatever it’s worth I’m pro-Individual Autonomy in all cases myself,) every work of art warrants preservation in my opinion. As a huge film buff, to watch a piece of cinema fade from our collective cultural consciousness in real time, for it to be quite literally killed in silence if you will, is more than a little upsetting.This is even sadder when you consider that director Giuseppe Rolando only worked on two other films which, based on a cursory search, are somehow even more forgotten than Silence is!! Call me sentimental, but I think we as a society owe it to this man, who is almost assuredly dead now, his legacy kept intact. We can’t let someone’s entire film-making career dissolve into the void if we have the means to stop it. If not the fictional fetus depicted within, perhaps we can all agree the film itself deserves to be spared.
The Long-Awaited Review!
Okay, but, you get it. It’s a rare film. How does it hold up outside this context?
Well, obviously, there’s Stelvio Cipriani’s soundtrack finally put in its intended context. The opening sequence in particular is mostly stunning thanks to the combination of music and cinematography. We begin with the prospective child (who looks to be about 1 or 2) wandering around a natural landscape and then the bustling city. I thought some of the shots of the child-to-be’s body were excessive and unnecessary (and now I’m on a watchlist somewhere) but I get what they were going for. He’s naked to emphasize his purity and helplessness in a careless world that doesn’t acknowledge his own existence. The shot of the child unbuttoning a mannequin’s blouse to suckle on its nipple (that’s another watchlist inclusion for me, surely) was somewhat gratuitous for my tastes as well, but I get the symbolism–he’s looking for a mother in a cold, weary world and this is the best he can currently do. These opening scenes of the boy’s guileless frolic through the city streets, coupled with that Cipriani magic, were so sincere and perfectly captured the feeling of childhood innocence such that I couldn’t help but smile. The first two tracks on the album, which I’ve embedded above, play during this part. That bouncing music motif you’ll hear in both songs is more or less the child’s theme and it may be the most exuberant composition I’ve ever heard.
The film transitions seamlessly from this symbolic manifestation of the future-child to our young protagonists whose names are Valeria and Gianni. They’re laughing, playing, teasing at sex, joy riding on tractors and you can feel the chemistry between the two actors (Ottavia Piccolo & Rodolfo Baldini). Ottavia is very beautiful but still believable as a young woman (as opposed to many mainstream films where the high schoolers are played by obvious 30 year olds). She lends the role a good deal of vulnerability and pain as the character grapples with the hard choice ahead of her. A lot of the runtime is devoted to Valeria moping around which, with a lesser actress, certainly could have gotten obnoxious but I thought she pulled it off. There are two musical motifs on the soundtrack, the aforementioned happy one and its somber counterpart. The later reoccurs as Valeria weighs her options, and could more or less be considered her own theme.
Now, from this point on, I’m hampered by the subpar subtitles I was given, so keep in mind I can’t fully comprehend everything that’s being said much less any hidden allusions, wordplay or witticisms that may be hidden in the original dialogue. But from what I can gather, the early scenes of our couple walking around Gianni’s grandparents’ farm is meant to establish the idea that a quiet, working class family life has an overlooked dignity to it. The grandparents mention how they traveled and took chances while young but eventually realized they preferred the country life and family. They are framed as the voices of reason early on. We eventually meet Valeria’s mother, who’s their foil: she’s narcissistic and overbearing. Basically the personification of the shallow people chasing money that Gianni’s grandparents warned about. Our lover-protagonists need to choose which of the two they’re going to take after.
During the farm segment early on, there are some sweeping shots of Valeria riding a horse through the countryside, and later the two riding a motorcycle up to the mountains which might have given us some breathtaking photography were we watching a clean print of the film. As is, everything is drowned in a degrading sepia tint due to color fading from my copy. (Obviously, that’s not the film’s fault but I bring it up to emphasize the need for a restoration and/or uploading a better print.) While in the mountains, there’s a shot of the child-to-be in the foliage overlooking our protagonists as they conceive him. I found that particular moment to be a creative and economical way to communicate the fact that the two made love without having to depict the act in any kind of unnecessary detail. (I’m not a prude, mind you, but to linger on a sex scene for so long right at the beginning would have thrown off the film’s pacing.) It’s a cheesy moment no doubt, but admittedly kind of cute. However, as I got through more of this movie I wonder why they felt the need to be so surreptitious here but then show Valeria’s mom topless in the bathroom for no discernible reason. (Seriously, again, I have nothing against the female form in movies but like…why??)
To Kill in Silence then wastes ten minutes of screen time on Gianni’s stock car races right in the middle of the film which serves no purpose whatsoever. A well thought out, fine tuned script should keep the flow going and have every individual scene serve a clear purpose. I’m sorry, but this segment serves none at all and only brings the movie down. That time could have been better spent further developing the main conflict, which plays out almost entirely in the second half.
Anyway. after the race, Valeria discovers she’s pregnant and we get what I initially thought was a dream sequence where she tells Gianni as they go scuba diving and to a carnival. The whole thing seemed too fantastical and Gianni seemed too pleased right off the bat for me to believe it was real–plus it all happened so fast in a rather haphazard montage. It was only later on in the film where they spoke again and already acknowledged her pregnancy that I realized we were supposed to take this segment at face value. That’s a bad sign but of course it could just be these awful subtitles confusing the narrative and robbing key moments–like Valeria informing Gianni–of their proper emotional weight. This same issue occurred again during a later scene of the two dancing in the club where Valeria suddenly yelled at Gianni and ran away. It was unclear to me why, due to garbled subtitles, but utilizing context clues I imagine Gianni floated the idea of not having the baby and Valeria felt betrayed by that.
An Infamous Ending & My Concluding Thoughts
I initially thought the sporadic cutaways to the future-child throughout the story were cute and harmless. In the first two thirds or so it just seemed like a useful visual cue that Valeria is pregnant and the two lovers are imagining their possible soon-to-be offspring. Unfortunately this narrative device overstays its welcome after the two protagonists disagree on whether to carry the pregnancy to term, and we are treated with a sad puppy dog reaction from the boy. Initially I was willing to wave that away as him feeling bad his parents were fighting. But they pulled the same shit after Valeria considers abortion herself in a later scene. This, for me, was when Silence started to feel like it was resorting to underhanded emotional manipulation to drive home a political opinion rather than tell a compelling story.
It all came to a head in the final five minutes as Valeria, while on the operating table, freaks out at the last minute. She screams “No!” at the top of her lungs like a crazy woman and leaps off the table. Our final image of her is a ridiculously over the top freeze frame where she looks deranged. This then leads to a final cutaway to our child-to-be who’s clapping (WTF!?) and then throws up his arms in a victory pose as the credits roll. What makes this so much more off-putting than I could describe is in how fast it all happens. It’s over before the audience even has a chance to react, like a dungeon master pulling a “rocks fall, everyone dies, the end!” I can’t emphasize enough to you how much of an anticlimactic, bad-taste ending it is. On top of that, the prospective child, who looked so cute in many of his prior appearances, is inexplicably illuminated from the back in this final moment, so he looks like a creepy shadow with just enough facial features illuminated to be disturbing. It just left such a bad taste in my mouth that I can now somewhat understand why this movie was so hated by the reviews I’ve read.
Until those final three cutaways with the child, I did not perceive To Kill in Silence to be obnoxiously or even necessarily anti-abortion so much as just pro-choice in the case of a woman who happens to choose to have a baby–which I thought was great. Valeria decides from the beginning she wants the kid, nobody talks her into it and she stands her ground any time anyone tries to pressure her into changing her mind. For me anyway, that’s fine, that’s how this kind of issue ought to be resolved. It just feels like the ending was rushed, like they couldn’t come up with anything else to do. This is so infuriating to me because you could keep the whole thing the same until Valeria walks into the operating room and I’d be down to give Silence a full-fledged recommendation, warts and all, with no reservations. As is, I just wish Valeria had said “hey, I changed my mind, let me up” like a normal person, walked outside and bumped into Gianni who’s been racing to meet her. Then have Gianni unambiguously affirm he’ll support Valeria and the baby. The child-to-be either looks on and smiles innocently as before or perhaps even joins in on the group hug, bringing the two story threads together. Boom. The end. That’s all they had to do, that’s what they set up with the proceeding moments and you don’t even have to drop the pro-life ending to make it palatable from a story-telling perspective. I just came up with that in two minutes while writing this review. How do you fuck that up so badly to where your film is almost universally reviled and forgotten as a result of such a poor decision?
Anyway, to finally wrap all this up, is To Kill in Silence a masterpiece? Certainly not. Is it a terrible movie? No, though the ending is terrible for sure. Are there really stupid, unnecessary moments like the race and mom-tits? Absolutely. But are there compelling aspects too–like the score, some of the cinematography, Ottavia Piccolo’s acting and the couple’s chemistry? Undeniably. It’s an average movie with pros and cons like many non-forgotten flicks. It has bad taste in some sequences, but so do a lot of films whom no ones crucifies to this degree. I think the reason why Silence’s flaws are not given any slack is because it’s tackling such a delicate, polarizing topic and does so in a ham-fisted way. Even so, there was definitely a solid interpersonal drama here if someone just ironed out the script and I strongly believe there’s also a beautifully shot motion picture here if someone could find and widely release a well-preserved print. All in all, despite its flaws, I believe To Kill in Silence not only warrants an extensive film restoration but also a nuanced critical reevaluation as well.