In one of the bonus features on the Cohen DVD of “La Pelle” (The Skin, 1981), writer-director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) contends that Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957, né Kurt Erich Suckert) was a reporter — indeed, a great reporter — rather than a novelist (though Kaput (1944) is somewhat fictionalized). She noted that even the most grotesque events in The Skin were accounts of things that occurred, indeed, recurred in Naples after the Nazis left and the Americans took over. In (1983) essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” novelist Milan Kundera, focused on Kaputt, wrote: “It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.”
(Malparte in internal exile on Lipari, 1936)
The Skin (first published in 1949, quickly added to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum) has lots and lots of dialogue in French. The scenes go on and on and on and do not seem to cohere into even a baggy novel. The dialogue between liaison officer Malaparte and the naïve colonel, Jack Hanmilton, who is eager to be a good guy, include many lectures about human nature in general and that of a starving conquered people in particular. The welcome of “liberators” was short-lived, and without selling their flesh and that of their children (Cavani only shows boys being pawed over by Moroccan soldiers; Malaparte wrote about very young girls as well as boys being sold for food or a few liras.) I don’t think the boyish colonel from Cleveland ever grasps that the Neapolitans regard him and the soldiers expecting cheap thrills regard their new rulers as not very different than the Nazis who ruled Naples before the Americans arrived or the fascists who ruled before that. Each successive regime required resourcefulness from those wanting to survive—and acquiescence to the prostitution or rape of women and children. Lecturing the Johnnies-come-lately, Malaparte said “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”
The movie replaces the colonel with 3-star general Mark Cork (a slight variant on Mark Clark), a publicity-eager commander of the 5th US Army annoyed by the arrival of the wife of a Massachusetts senator. Deborah Wyatt (Romanian-born Alexandra King in the only role in IMDB) is a pilot who flies her own plane in from Sicily. Malaparte plays Vergil to her Dante (though Malaparte is the one who writes about the post-apocalyptic reality).
Malaparte is urbane past the line of cynicism, but with compassion for the Americans as well as for the Neapolitans. Wyatt is another American unwilling to recognize the reality of either the locals’ desperation or the rapaciousness of the GIs. After she boards a truck filled with GIs and is manhandled she has had enough of occupation reality and goes home, much to the relief of Gen. Cork.
Malaparte shrugs in the Mastroianni manner. He has his villa on the coast of Capri and noble friends including the Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo, a mostly wasted Claudia Cardinale. (In none of the bonus features does Cavani comment on Cardinale’s reduced part. She enthuses about the graciousness and helpfulness of Mastroianni and Lancaster, however.)
(Villa Malaparte, Capri)
Captain Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall [Krull]) falls in love with the professional virgin (who displays her intact hymen to lines of soldiers for a price collected by her father) and retains some of his good cheer and eagerness to help Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) and her light-fingered younger brother.
Malaparte does not call out hypocrisy, even while showing the deleterious effects of American naiveté mixed with self-righteousness: “No one on this earth save the Americans can move about with such easy, smiling grace among people who are filthy, starved and unhappy. It is not a sign of insensibility: it is a sign of optimism and at the same time of innocence,” he explains. “The Americans are not cynics, they are optimistic and optimism is itself a sign of innocence. He who is blameless in thought and deed is led not to deny that evil exists, but to refuse to admit that evil is inevitable and incurable. The Americans believe that misery, hunger, pain and everything else can be combatted, that men can recover from misery, hunger, and pain, that there is a remedy for all evil. They do not know that evil is incurable.”
Both book and movie show the American soldiers going all out to aid Neaoplitans after Mount Vesuvius erupts and a cloud of ashes fall on Naples. There is a great bit in the book in which American planes attack a could of molten particles before it can blow over the city. There is something crazy about machine-gunning a cloud so that it will drop what it is carrying, but the real folie de grandeur is plane that approaches too close, is sucked in, and explodes. The explosion results in the fall of the molten material over the sea. Before the advent of CGI, I assume that the scene was too expensive to try to film.
Concerned that American audiences would not accept a portrayal of “the greatest generation” as anything less than noble (well after “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H”) led Warner Brothers to back out the contract to release “The Skin,” which never had a US theatrical release (though eventually receiving a splendid 2014 DVD with a commentary track and various bonus feature interviews of Cavani and set designer Dante Ferretti).
Not least for scaling back the portrayals of African American sex fiends and libertine homosexual communists (admittedly a switch from blaming fascism on homosexuals), but also in bringing out narrative lines, I think the movie is better than the book. I still think the greatest portrait of desperation in “liberated” Naples is the section of Roberto Rosselini’s “Paisa” in which an African American’s shoes are stolen and he follows the young thief to the cavern where hundreds of Neapolitans are living. Malaparte also reported the hunting of horny African Americans to rob, and with a greater taste for Grand Guignol, what Malaparte wrote fit with Norman Lewis’s more detached (and less probing) Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (1978) and John Horne Burns’s more sentimental 1947 American best-seller The Gallery. (It seems to me that Malaparte was less harsh about the Americans than Burns, btw.)
Aside from the universal practice of post-dubbing dialogue rather than shooting with sound (so that even the Italians’ lines are out of synch with lip movement; Mastroianni allegedly spoke English in scenes with Lancaster and Marshall), there is the oddity of lines in Italian being translated (by Malaparte) into Italian. I don’t see why an international release could not have had the Americans speak English and the Italians speak Italians (it’s not like “The Leopard” in which Lancaster was playing a Sicilian character…).
Malaparte, who had marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922 and had official backing from various periodicals, was ejected from the Fascist Party in 1933, and jailed and/or sent into internal exile multiple times before landing a position as Italian Liberation Corps Liaison Officer to the American High Command in Italy from November 1943 to March 1946. Consistently sympathizing with authoritarians, he flirted with the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party (though continuing to look askance at homosexual communists) and at the time of his death was enthusiastic about Mao, who was engaged in the famine-productng disaster of “the Great Leap Forward.” Malaparte’s will left his villa on Capri to the PRC, though his family succeeded in contesting the will.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray