The prologue is a montage of beguiling clips: a young girl sticks a pin repeatedly into the corpse of a bird; a mother tends anxiously to her infant child; the two scenarios converge with traumatic consequences.
Fast-forward fifteen years later - we're now in 1970s Rome. We bear witness to a brunette woman, tied and gagged with duct tape, being slashed repeatedly with a particularly mean-looking blade. As her body hits the floor, the killer places a coin on each of her eyes and takes photographs of their handiwork.
The body is found later that day in a local park. An elderly eye-witness claims to have seen a woman in red trench coat and leather gloves, her face covered by a black veil, dragging the corpse to its final resting place. Next to it, a note has been left. World-worn detectives Moretti (Luis Emilio Rodriguez) and Succo (Gustavo Dalessanro) recognise the message as being text from Dante's "The Divine Comedy".
A further murder occurs under almost identical circumstances. Moretti digs a little deeper and discovers there is a link between victims: they all have ties to the Visconti family, whose daughter Francesca disappeared fifteen years earlier and has never been found.
Moretti visits Francesca's father, Vittorio (Raul Gederlini), at his manor home, discovering the former poet and philosopher to be confined to a wheelchair. According to Vittorio, a masked burglar broke into his home many moons ago. The ensuing scuffle resulted in the burglar stabbing Vittorio in the back, thus crippling him for life. The flashback sequence which accompanies this story ends with the burglar snatching the young Francesca and fleeing into the night.
Vittorio's wife Nina (Silvina Grippaldi) remains solemnly silent on the subject of her daughter's fate.
The murders continue. Moretti and Succo continue to smoke fags, drink their J&B and scratch their heads. Could it be that Francesca has survived and, after all these years, has returned to systematically pick off each of the people who wronged her in her youth? While dressing like the villain from THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES?
Whereas recent films such as BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO and AMER helped popularise a current trend in neo-giallo, FRANCESCA is more of a straight-up love-letter to classic gialli. Directed by Argentinean filmmaker Luciano Onetti, he also co-wrote the movie alongside his brother Nicolas. It's a follow-up to their more experimental SONNO PROFONDO (DEEP SLEEP) and is the second instalment of what they anticipate as being their "giallo trilogy".
Right from the start, you'll be struck by how perfectly FRANCESCA strives to evoke its era. Visually, the digital photography has been treated in post-production to look just like an Italian genre picture of the 1970s. There is no "grindhouse" distressing - rather, the faded colours, crushed blacks and occasional soft imagery really do look, for the most part, like you're watching a vintage film. There are only a handful of washed-out daytime scenes which belie this effect.
As mentioned earlier, there's a lot of cigarette-smoking, keen positioning of J&B bottles, old cars and antiquated telephone systems in evidence here. Characters are all adorned in attire perfectly fitting of the setting. Look out for killer's POV shots, the aforementioned leather gloves, kids being cruel to animals, disabled suspects, the villain's taunting telephone calls to the cops, photographs of their victims, a nonsensical reason for the Dante-inspired slayings ... all familiar genre tropes. Even the editing and camerawork are highly reminiscent of styles previously owned by the likes of Dario Argento and Sergio Martino.
Then there's the score. Luciano Onetti also masterminded this, and it's a great effort - you'd be fooled into thinking much of it came from recently discovered Goblin outtakes.
There is a very definite whiff of style over substance. Especially during the first thirty minutes or so, where everything is presented vignette-style and you do feel like proceedings are becoming perilously close to the overly-calculated, clever-but-cold works of Helene Cattet/Bruno Forzani. Happily, there is more focus on plot and dialogue as events progress, including an enjoyable (albeit not entirely logical) reveal at the end.
As a whodunit, it's all as ridiculous as your typical gialli, with a simple plot which the Onettis have tried hard to over-complicate via use of misdirection and flashy editing techniques. It works.
I enjoyed FRANCESCA. I accept it's contrived and does focus a little too heavily on emulating the films it loves rather than attempting to emotionally engage. You know those sitcoms that have several writers who collectively obsess over every single line having to be funny, instead of realising less is often more? It's akin to that, replacing punchlines with homage after homage after homage.
I got into that approach though and appreciated FRANCESCA for the fanboy celebration it is - a staggeringly accurate one, visually, aurally, tonally.
Keep watching after the end credits too, for a final 2-minute assault on the senses which makes for the most erotic onscreen marriage of blade and panties since THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.
Fast becoming my favourite genre distributor, Unearthed Films have released FRANCESCA in a beautifully presented 3-disc blu-ray/DVD/CD combo digipack.
I've focused on the region-free blu-ray disc for this review.
The film is presented uncut in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The 16x9 picture benefits from full 1080p HD resolution and comes as a keenly sized MPEG4-AVC file. Because the film was shot on digital and later manipulated to replicate that "old film stock" look, with colour correction and whatnot, this is an odd film to assess in terms of presentation. Blacks are often crushed, loud colours flicker when observed in close shot, and a slightly worn look greets the daytime scenes. But this is such a painstakingly constructed film that these facets are intentional; Onetti wanting his film to look like it's a product of the early 70s. In that regard, the transfer nails it. And I have to say in terms of contrast, texture, depth and detail, I have no qualms whatsoever about this very satisfying proposition.
Italian 2.0 audio offers solid playback throughout, with optional English subtitles on hand in easily readable yellow.
The disc opens to an attractively animated main menu page. From there, an animated scene selection option affords access to the movie by way of 9 chapters.
Supplementary features kick-start with an enlightening 114-minute Behind The Scenes featurette. In this, Luciano narrates as we watch a whole host of interesting on-shoot footage: make-up being applied, lights and cameras being set up, actors taking direction and so much more. It's also intriguing to see how the behind-the-scenes footage - shot on digital but not treated or distressed in any way - compares to the finished film. There are some nice storyboard sketches present too.
A 2-minute deleted scene actually serves as an alternate opening. It plays in black-and-white, and is less obvious as a giallo. We get young Francesca stabbing the bird, but that's followed with a more blatant intimation of what her home life entailed. The opening they went with is more effective.
Next up are interviews with the Onetti brothers, conducted separately over the course of 19 enjoyable minutes. Remarkably, Luciano admits that he only discovered gialli as recently as 2011. Both are likeable chaps (yes, even you Luciano, despite wearing sunglasses indoors!) with an obviously genuine adoration of the genre they're paying homage to. Interspersed with clips from FRANCESCA, I was perhaps a little disappointed that there were no clips from SONNO PROFONDO - even though it's mentioned quite a bit.
We also get the aforementioned 2-minute post-closing titles sequence in isolation, proffered here as a "Hidden Scene". A bit cheeky, perhaps, but it's certainly worth having on the disc twice.
The film's original trailer is 102 seconds of expertly edited teasing.
Finally we have a most welcome trailer reel advertising more titles from Unearthed: ATROZ, AMERICAN GUINEA PIG: BOUQUET OF GUTS AND GORE, AMERICAN GUINEA PIG: BLOODSHOCK, SHEEP SKIN and LILITH'S HELL.
The DVD offers all of the above, albeit the film and featurettes are in standard definition.
Oh yes, there's the CD soundtrack too! This is a 13-track, 29-minute affair. If you like ambient electronica, funky disco instrumentals and a healthy dose of infectious Goblin-esque prog noodling (and who doesn't?), then you may just cum in your pants listening to this. A lot of the tracks end abruptly but you soon get used to that; Onetti is clearly a very, very talented man.
Finally there's a nice 4-page booklet containing well-written liner notes from "Ultra Violent" editor Art Ettinger.
FRANCESCA may try a little too hard to win our hearts (or browbeat us into accepting its cleverness), but it still emerges as an easily watchable, entertaining film. As a throwback/homage to the glory days of gialli, it's frighteningly accurate for the most part. And Unearthed Films have furnished it with yet another stunning package.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Unearthed Films|
|see main review|