Uno Bianca Review
For a while, it seemed that Michele Soavi was Italian horror cinema's great hope. When he retired to care full-time for his critically ill son shortly after the success of his masterful Dellamorte Dellamore (1994), no-one seemed to step forward to carry the torch left by this extremely talented visual craftsman and former protégé of Dario Argento. Following his son's death, Soavi returned from obscurity to find that the industry had all but collapsed in his absence, and since 1999 he has, like so many former icons of Italian horror, spent his time helming television projects, although he recently made a return to the big screen with 2006's Arrivederci Amore, Ciao, a critically lauded but financially unsuccessful crime thriller. Uno Bianca is one of the TV movies he made during this interim. Originally screened in two parts in February 2001, this gritty cop thriller is arguably to the poliziotteschi what Argento's recent films have been to the giallo: a modern update of a style of film born out of the tumultuous 1970s, but lacking the sense of immediacy or balls-to-the-wall ruthlessness of its forefathers.
The plot follows Valerio Maldesi (Kim Rossi Stuart), a dogged police inspector with a short fuse and a real passion for his job. A gang of robbers operating out of a white Fiat Uno has been making a name for itself, staging hit and run operations and killing with abandon over the course of the past year. The business becomes personal for Maldesi and his colleague Rocco (Dino Abbrescia) when their boss is killed by the gang in a bungled sting. Driven by the burning need to avenge his superior, Maldesi swears that he will apprehend the perpetrators, come hell or high water.
The film is in fact based on a real-life case, which might explain some of the deficiencies of the script (which was co-written by, among others, Soavi and Luigi Montefiori, the 70s Euro cult star turned scenarist better known to his fans as George Eastman). The first of the two episodes, especially, is rather mundane, with a great deal of time being taken up by Maldesi and Rocco merely sitting around waiting for a lead to turn up. This is undoubtedly an accurate portrayal of police work, but it makes for uninvolving television and means that, more often than not, a clue comes along quite by chance rather than Maldesi having to actually work to uncover it. (Witness, for example, a lengthy scene in which the two cops sit by the roadside, cataloguing every white Fiat Uno that passes them, until the one they're looking for happens to come their way.) On other occasions, some rather tenous leaps in logic are made, such as Maldesi's suddenly conclusion that the gang's ability to get around without being apprehended must be because they have access to police ID. The hunch, as it happens, turns out to be right, which suggests that the film's writers had a series of specific plot points check off, but not much of an idea of how to get to them.
These script problems extend to the portayal of the characters, who are for the most part carboard cut-outs. As Maldesi, Kim Rossi Stuart makes for a bland lead, with the mounting anger he is supposed to feel at the amount of administrate red tape he finds himself faced with never coming across believably. Elsewhere, all the old clichés are trotted out, from the bumbling bureaucrats who hold up the investigation to the dead colleague who must be avenged to the vulnerable pregnant wife who, right from the word go, is obviously included only so she can eventually be put in danger. The rest of the cast are reasonably effective, although it would be inappropriate to label any particular performance as outstanding. Like the film as a whole, everything is merely competent rather than praiseworthy.
In a stylish 70s poliziotteschi or giallo, these plot problems might not have mattered so much, because this film is so determined to follow every stage of the procedure, the at times tenuous logic draws attention to itself. This is accentuated by the film's look, which has the grainy, desaturated look that every single thriller director seemsto use these days - it's certainly a far cry from the saturated beauty of The Church or Dellamorte Dellamore. Soavi's direction is workmanlike for the most part, although he does stage a handful of interesting set-pieces, including a sequence that effectively intercuts footage of the Uno gang carrying out a heist with Maldesi and Rocco being forced to perform menial administrative duties, while another, which seems to be an homage to a similar scene in Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, sees Maldesi, in search of a policeman who is a key suspect, finding himself faced with a building full of men in uniform. By and large, though, the film is aesthetically rather unremarkable, and this is not helped by the presence of some poor quality, blocky insert shots which draw attention to the production's low budget. There is a nervous urgency to the camerawork, most of which is handheld, so it's a shame that the actual plot unfolds in such a sedate manner.
Ultimately, the three-hour running time seems to work against Soavi. Had the script been pared down to a more reasonable 90 minutes or, at a stretch, two hours, he could probably have delivered a taut and involving thriller, and shaving off some of the more mundane aspects of the investigation could have given it the sense of drive it so urgently needed. The end product is intermittently engaging, but it is unremarkable and, at this length, simply requires too much investment for a film that doesn't offer anything special. It's great that Michele Soavi has made a comeback after so many years away from the limelight, but those expecting a natural progression for his obsessions with gothic horror, love and death will be sorely disappointed. All things considered, Uno Bianca is probably more a case of him keeping his hand in the jar rather than pursuing his own vision.
Like all of NoShame's US releases so far, their presentation of Uno Bianca is a bit of a mixed bag. The film is spread across two discs, maintaining the two part structure of its original broadcast. So far, so good, but, disappointingly, the 1.66:1 transfer is non-anamorphic. This, I suspect, is due to the materials they had access to (anamorphic broadcasting doesn't seem to have caught on in Italy, and it seems fairly certain that the final editing was carried out in standard definition 4x3). What makes this all the more frustrating is the fact that this transfer actually contains more detail than any of NoShame's other US releases. The dreaded stairstepping effect is still there, however, and some overly heavy noise reduction on the prominent grain causes many of the darker scenes to become a mirage of swimming mosquito noise. Furthermore, especially in the second part, a number of video-sourced shots crop up, which would appear to have been poorly standards converted, resulting in some prominent combing artefacts and jerky motion.
Given that it is only stereo, the audio mix demonstrates an impressive degree of depth, with both channels being effectively to give the illusion of a broad soundscape. The dialogue sounds crisp, and the occasional gunshots are backed up by a decent level of bass. Optional English subtitles are provided, and they are for the most part clear and seemingly accurate, although a handful of spelling and grammatical mistakes show that they could have done with some more rigorous proof-reading.
Surprisingly, for a TV project, NoShame have been able to secure a wealth of bonus features. Michele Soavi is conspicuously absent (one can only assume that he was busy with Arrivederci Amore, Ciao when they were recorded), but many of the other key participants show up. The bulk of the bonus materials can be found on Disc 1.
The film is preceded by a brief introduction by producer Pietro Valsecchi, who gives a very brief explanation of the film's context. I'm not really a fan of these introductory-type pieces, given that, when I select "Play Movie", I actually want the movie to play, not to be subjected to a precursory bonus feature.
Better is How To Get Action Into Truth, a 17-minute interview with co-writer Luigi Montefiori. He explains how he adapted the source material, a novel written by one of the police officers responsible for apprehending the real-life Uno Bianca gang, covering all the usual problems with trying to turn factualy events into entertainment (by his own admission, "nothing happened" in the second half of the book). He also makes some surprisingly frank statements about Soavi's abilities as a director, claiming that his skill with the camera is "inversely proportional" to his understanding of character development. Finally, he goes on to cover his own career and his working relationship with Soavi (he also wrote Soavi's first feature, Stagefright), stating that, the first time he came into contact with him, he was "useless"! Like many of NoShame's interviews, this one is a bit rambling, and could have done with some judicious editing, but by and large it remains entertaining in spite of its deviations.
Valsecchi shows up again for We Did It Like Cinema, a 4-minute featurette in which he basically congratulates himself for the fact that he didn't make any compromises, despite receiving threats from the real killers upon whom the Uno gang of the film was based. Smug and self-satisfied, he doesn't reveal anything particularly important in this interview.
Concluding Disc 1's bonus materials is It Was NOT Business As Usual, a 9-minute interview with cinematographer Gianni Mammolotti, who talks about his conviction that the film be realistic and true to life at all times. He describes the experimental nature of much of the shoot, with Soavi constantly trying out new ideas and then assembling a coherent scene in the editing room, and of the difficulties that this caused for keeping the lighting consistent. He also discusses Kim Rossi Stuart and how his personality impacted on the production.
Disc 2 contains two Behind the Scenes pieces, one 4 minutes in length and the other running for 7 minutes. The shorter one is essentially a cut-down version of the longer piece, and neither reveals anything earth-shattering, since their main aim is clearly promotional. Of most interest is the chance to see Soavi at work on the set and to hear a few brief words from him about the film. Kim Rossi Stuart and Pietro Bontempo (Michele Ferramonti) also shares a few words about their characters and the plot.
The final extra is a Still Gallery, containing various promotional and behind the scenes photographs of reasonable quality.
Additionally, a 12-page booklet containing liner notes and cast/crew bios has been included, along with a rather unusual bonus: a cardboard Fiat Uno to be unfolded and assembled.
Uno Bianca is perhaps an unusual entry in NoShame's 70s-centric catalogue. Still, fans of Michele Soavi's work will doubtless appreciate this chance to see what he's been up to since Dellamorte Dellamore, even if the end result is not a patch on his big-screen endeavours. While the transfer itself is flawed, the audio is of a high standard and the extras are, if slightly rambling, mostly worthwhile.