SUBWAYArco Ferreri’s 1964 film La Donna Scimmia (The Monkey Woman) is a strange satire whose effect depends on not being sure how strange and satirical it is supposed to be. This is due to the vivid streak of sentimental tragicomedy that runs through the film; in fact, through both versions of the film that were made and have now been included in the digital and Blu-ray versions of this release. Producer Carlo Ponti convinced the director to create a “happy ending” version so the film could enter the Cannes film festival, and there is the original version that Ferreri shot with a much darker ending. But you have to watch both; This dual narrative gives the film a new tenderness and complexity.
The Ape Woman is inspired by the true story of Julia Pastrana, a 19th century indigenous Mexican woman with hypertrichosis, a condition that meant that her hair covered her entire body. Like the “Elephant Man”, she was exploited as a fan of the fairs. Ferreri’s drama, set in the present day 1964, introduces us to a mischievous and sordid entrepreneur named Antonio, played by Ugo Tognazzi, who has brought his slide projector to a nunnery in Naples to put on a supposedly uplifting and educational show about missionaries in Africa. . In the convent kitchens, he discovers a shrunken young novice, Maria (Annie Girardot), who is ashamed of being horribly covered in hair. Antonio encourages and charms the poor girl and persuades the sisters to let him take her home, finally agreeing to marry her so that he can put on a raucous street show in a converted warehouse in which she must prance, in and out of a cage. pretending to be a monkey, while Antonio cracks a whip and tells the gaping crowd that he found her in Africa.
Soon Maria becomes more confident in her performance and local businessman Maieroni (Achille Maiji) brings her absurd act to Paris, repurposed as an exotic striptease routine. Maria becomes pregnant; In one reality, she and her shaggy baby die miserably in childbirth, but in the other version she survives, with a normal baby. However, the experience causes her excess hair to fall out and she becomes like any wife and mother, while Antonio humbly submits to normal work on the docks. It is not that one ending is better or more authentic than the other: they must be consumed in parallel.
Understandably, 21st century audiences will view The Ape Woman as a satire on misogyny, racism, and exploitation. It is also comparable, in its surreal defiance of good taste, to Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, or Nagisa Oshima’s 1986 Max Mon Amour, with a woman taking a chimpanzee for a lover. It is also reminiscent of the Creepy MC Song in Cabaret with her monkey-faced lover: “If you could see her through my eyes … she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” But it is also clearly intended in other less readable ways: as a poignant, if bizarre, tale of arrogance, redemption, and love.
There are some incredible moments in The Monkey Woman: particularly Antonio and Maria’s wedding, when he takes her outside to parade through the streets while she sings the wedding song through a microphone. And there is something very bleak about her striptease, with its eerie new sensuality foreshadowing what we now have no choice but to view as a loss of innocence.
Perhaps the time has come to see this film not as a black comic provocation, but as something to put next to Fellini’s La Strada, something intimate, a vision of uxorous commotion with its alternate realities: Antonio rescuing the mummified corpse of his wife from the museum so he can keep putting on a spooky sideshow with it, and Antonio meets his wife and son for lunch as he bustles out on the docks. Ferrera (and Ponti) somehow created something daringly postmodern.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism