Scandalous Nadia Cassini doffs it all for THE SNAKE GOD in Piero Vivarelli's anti-colonial sexploitation offering on DVD courtesy of Mondo Macabro.
Young Roman girl Paola (STARCRASH's Cassini) arrives in Jamaica to join her fruit factory owner husband Bernard (Sergio Tramonti, Pasolini's MEDEA) in his tropical paradise. Bernard has to leave on business soon after, but lonely Paola makes the acquaintance of Bernard's former secretary – now a schoolteacher – Stella (Beryl Cunningham, SCREAMERS), a local who embodies the contradiction of a Western education and local superstition. Warned away from the Beach of the Black Rock to the point of insatiable curiosity, Paola goes there and is frightened away by the sight of a large snake. Bernard is convinced that she hallucinated the snake; but Stella tells her that the god of love Damballa has allowed her to see him because he wants to possess her. Paola – as much curious and amused as lonely – agrees to accompany Stella to see an exorcist who gives her an amulet to attract Bernard's desire and protect her from Damballa. During the ceremony, Stella also has a vision of a white man she has never seen before and does not know how to interpret the vision.
Troubled by strange dreams, Paola accompanies Stella to another ceremony that can be "more dangerous to non-believers" – which looks somewhat like it was patterned after the Hauka ceremony recorded by Jean Rouch in LES MAITRES FOUS (1955) without as much frothing at the mouth – in which Paola dances herself into a frenzy and fuses (at least in her mind) the identities of Damballa and Bernard's virile porter Luis (Evaristo Márquez, DEAD AIM) into one. Nights later, Paola finds herself drawn into a more secret ceremony in which she makes love to Damballa (or is it Luis?). The sudden death of Bernard in a plane crash on the same night is a shock for Paola but an omen for Stella. When Tony (Claudio Trionfi, THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI) – the Roman boy Paola jilted for Bernard – arrives for a visit, Stella warns Paola that he should leave (believing her vision of him to have been a warning). As Stella herself falls for Tony, Paola's own affection for Tony is already alienated; but is she giving herself over to an idea of exoticism or to the snake god himself?
More arty than explicit, THE SNAKE GOD is a welcome discovery; being more a survival of sixties provocative and leftish political filmmaking than seventies exploitation. As mentioned in the disc's accompanying essay, Stella – who Paola first assumes must be born wild to make love on the beach with such abandon – is far from the "magical negro" trope, being educated and self-aware while Paola and Tony come across as naïve and insensitive (more so in the former). The hidden depths that she reveals to them have to do with history rather than myth, while the village Catholic priest (Galeazzo Benti, AN AMERICAN IN ROME) only describes the villagers as good albeit noisy people and explains his presence as to help the locals forget being brought to this country in chains as slaves. Viewers looking for more prurient takes on the same material are better off with one of Joe D'Amato's Carribean soft- and hardcore efforts, particularly PAPAYA, LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS. THE SNAKE GOD itself would make a better double bill with the Mondo Macabro UK release of Cesare Canevari's THE NUDE PRINCESS with Ajita Wilson. The cinematography of Benito Frattari (a veteran of the Mondo pseudo-documenatry films including MONDO CANE) is picturesque but not particularly striking, while Augusto Martelli's isn't as hypnotic as some of Stelvio Cipriani's later hybrid synthesizer/native rhythms for the D'Amato films.
Previously released on DVD in Italy by Storm Video, THE SNAKE GOD – which only received theatrical release in Italy, Venezuela, and France – comes to US DVD in progressive, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) that is clear enough to reveal the downy hairs on Cassini's arms in close-up. It's probably the same master as the Italian disc but is well-encoded in keeping with Mondo Macabro's more recent releases. The optional English subtitles are a first for this title and give depth to a film that seems like a piece of Italian exotica fluff when viewed without translation.
Director Vivarelli – who died in 2010 – appears in a video interview (14:11) which focuses more on his career than on THE SNAKE GOD specifically as it was shot by Nocturno – the Italian video magazine that produced many of the extras for the Italian Raro Video releases – a few years ago. He discusses working with Lucio Fulci and actor/singer Adriano Celentano, and encouraging Celentano to enter a song they wrote for one of their films for the San Remo music festival. Of THE SNAKE GOD, he mainly focuses on the hypocrisy of what can and cannot be shown in regards to onscreen sexuality (although he finds Catherine Breillat's hardcore intellectual films just as hypocritical) and mounted the softcore PROVOCAZIONE with hardcore actress Moana Pozzi as a challenge to the conservative union of housewives that scuttled the actress' television show. He also talks about his membership in the Italian and Cuban communist movements.
The twenty-two page text essay includes better background on the film, which was initially pitched to producer Alfredo Bini (ACCATONE) as a historical film about Annie Palmer the "White Witch of Rose Hall", an English girl who grew up in Haiti and learned voodoo and witchcraft from her nanny. She married a plantation owner and was rumored to have murdered him and numerous male slaves that she took as lovers before she herself was murdered. Bini was afraid that the film would be seen as a cash-in to Gillo Pontecorvo's BURN, so Vivarelli kept some elements and moved it to a modern setting (the film does carry over BURN's Marquez). The essay also discusses the casting of Vivarelli's then-partner Cunningham – and her earlier appearance in Alberto Cavallone's more provocative LE SALAMANDRE. You'll have to look to the cast and crew profiles for more information on Nadia Cassini, a New York-born model who at eighteen married journalist Igor Cassini – coiner of the term "the jet set" – and her subsequent notoriety. The film's Italian trailer (3:32) is included along with Mondo Macabro's usual promo reel. (Eric Cotenas)
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