I had the good fortune to view What Have You Done to Solange? on the big screen at last weekend’s Splatterfest V at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. (It played under the alternate title, The School that Couldn’t Scream.) Having watched Massimo Dallamano’s crafty giallo several times before on DVD, I was still unprepared for the experience of seeing it in its original, 35mm form.
Maybe it was the years-long gap since my previous viewing.
Maybe it was the thrill of that scratched-up, dirt-speckled 35mm print.
I thought back to my disenchantment and disgust with Megan is Missing, a film that spread a flimsy sprinkling of “cautionary tale” over a stew of irresponsible exploitation and shock value.
While watching Solange, I more than once thought: “this is the film Megan is Missing tried, and failed, to be.”
Granted, Solange operates firmly in the giallo tradition, and offers plenty of opportunities for exploitation and shock value; the surprise is how seldom it pounces on those old standbys. It unspools a continuous pretzel-twist of a narrative, but its greatest asset may be how plausible it all feels. Eschewing the overt stylization that would make Dario Argento’s films more noteworthy for visual thrills than narrative coherence, Dallamano (who cowrote the script with Bruno Di Geronimo) is less interested in splashes of color than the nuts and bolts of police procedure, and the trickle-down effect to grownups enmeshed in their own illicit secrets, and pampered teenagers unwittingly in over their heads with sex and drugs.
As Bob Dylan famously sang, “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,” and Solange shows the repercussions that come when youthful assumptions of immortality are tested.
The setting – a Catholic girls’ school in London – is a masterstroke that cleverly refutes the notion of “entertainment” being derived from the sex and violence on display. A funereal cloud of religious guilt hangs over the proceedings, from husband Enrico Rosseni’s (Fabio Testi) infidelity to the maturity of his underage student girlfriend, Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo), to the resentment felt by Enrico’s wife, Herta (Karin Baal), who is wise enough to know what’s going on. The teenage girls who know more than they let on are more than just pretty faces – smart in their secret-keeping and savvy to their surroundings, they exhibit an intelligence that extends beyond mere cannon fodder. The school faculty is a collective of unconventional-looking men who could all fit the “panting pervert in the bushes” stereotype, but with one crazy-eyed exception, none stumble into the intrusive humor that marks the likes of a standard slasher sequel (there’s no “Crazy Ralph” in sight).
For almost the entire run time, Dallamano roots the thriller elements of Solange in a conceivable reality, shooting a majority of scenes in matter-of-fact ways. There’s a deliberate banality to the visuals that makes the periodic interruptions of “normality” all the more jarring. Cinematographer Aristide Massaccesi (better known under the alias Joe D’Amato) photographs the aftermath of violence with a clinical, forensic quality that extracts the prurient thrills that more cynical filmmakers would view as selling points. When a father is shown a grisly X-ray that depicts his daughter’s cause of death, his shell-shocked expression seamlessly transitions into him seated in a pew at his daughter’s funeral – moments like these carry an undeniable emotional impact that lingers more than a flourish that’s stylistic for its own sake.
To that end, the effect of Ennio Morricone’s score is profound to the point of being heartbreaking. Listening to it through the Colonial Theatre’s formidable sound system, what I once considered melodramatic came through with gut-wrenching impact: the strings that start out hesitant before metamorphosing into mortal urgency, complemented by a melancholy flute, and finally incorporating female ululations, underlines the tone of the film during the brilliant opening credits sequence. As a group of girls – including Camille Keaton’s titular character – ride bikes in slow motion, the image tinted red, it foreshadows the fall-from-innocence danger yet to unfold. The main theme is revisited periodically, sometimes even in times of happiness during the Enrico/Elizabeth affair, and the Enrico/Herta reconciliation. That the score can be applied to a variety of emotions and scenarios speaks volumes for Morricone’s mastery of the medium – this is one of his best.
For as great and unique as Solange is (even the title is one-of-a-kind; how often do you hear the name “Solange”?), its reluctance toward giallo conventions may alienate viewers looking for slick thrills. Without being showy, this film separates itself from the pack by delivering an experience as intriguing as it is emotionally rich; there are layers of complex characterization (Testi, Galbo, and Baal are fantastic) conveyed as much through dialog as subtle glances and gestures. Dallamano masterfully distills the interpersonal conflicts into greater thematic fodder, weaving an ever-more-intricate web of religious guilt and the question of whether redemption exists in a world that appears to be surrendering to its own worst instincts.
That the person responsible for the string of killings in Solange could be viewed as both a moral crusader and a twisted vengeance-seeker speaks to a fine line of ambiguity that the filmmakers toe cautiously throughout. Like the other major turning points, the conclusion is something that will not be met with triumphant cheers, but a sense of sadness and loss that segues perfectly into that Morricone score for the final – and perhaps most devastating – time.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 9 out of 10
(What Have You Done to Solange? is available in the U.S. via Arrow Video.)