IMDb categorizes Scherzo Diabolico (2015, Dir. Adrián García Bogliano) as a comedy as well as a horror-thriller. It does mix dark, satirical comedy, as well as elements of the crime film, into its story. But why comedy? One clue is the movie’s title. It is a reference to French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan‘s “Scherzo diabolico,” “the third of the Études in the minor keys, Op. 39, for solo piano” (Wikipedia). Again according to Wikipedia, the word scherzo literally means “‘I joke,’ ‘I jest,’ or ‘I play’ in Italian.”
The implication is that the movie Scherzo Diabolico is a diabolical prank. But who is its devil and what is the joke? As the film’s structure involves a double-revenge plot, there is a corresponding double-joke structure. Faithful to the referential title, both jokes include classical music. But the identities of the diabolical joke tellers and the ‘butt’ of their jokes, once revealed, are not what the viewer might expect.
The first two acts focus on the revenge of a weak man against the stronger ‘alpha’ men who dominate and exploit him. As the plot summary on the movie’s Facebook page explains,
Aram is a wearied accountant with an unbearably dull existence. With a nagging wife who berates him for not being assertive enough, and a measly paycheck, he quietly suffers while awaiting a long-deserved promotion. But there’s more to Aram than his mild-mannered demeanor lets on: he has been secretly devising a scheme to finally get what he feels he is owed. One day he asserts his power menacingly when he kidnaps a schoolgirl and keeps her tied up in an abandoned warehouse. What seems like the perfect plan soon unravels into his worst nightmare, and his carefully constructed scheme comes crashing down piece by bloody piece.
Although he has been symbolically castrated (see the shot involving a blender in the trailer below), Aram (Francisco Barreiro) isn’t the innocent, “mild-mannered” victim that he at first appears to be. To cope with his “nagging wife,” he has a standing appointment with a local prostitute. He doesn’t just kidnap a mere “schoolgirl” — Anie (Daniela Soto Vell) is a teenager. Aram tortures her physically in various ways (including with a Taser) and sexually abuses and humiliates her by forcing her to pose naked for a ransom video (reenacting the classic “male gaze” in the process, albeit while wearing a mask symbolic of a power he does not yet have). He sees her not as a person but as the mere means to his own narcissistic ends. When he gets what he wants, he dumps her (alive, at least) in a field. Although Aram’s goal is to provoke the firing of his manager (whose daughter is Anie), it is an indirect effect of his actions. Aram wreaks his vengeance on Anie rather than on her father. The ‘joke’ here is on Anie — and more broadly — women as a group. The power Aram asserts is that of patriarchy.
This male ‘jest’ at the expense of the female becomes clearer when Aram takes Anie’s father’s position at work. Once he has taken “what he feels he is owed,” Aram outdoes the ‘alphas’ in corrupt behavior. While Anie’s father behaves like a stereotypical ‘family man,’ Aram continues his extramarital exploits by forcibly seducing his secretary (who is shown as ‘liking it’). After setting her up in a ‘love nest’ apartment, he buys his wife’s love by giving her jewelry and a new, more expensive house. Having moved up in the world of men, he tells the prostitute that he won’t be visiting her anymore.
The third act tells the second revenge story. In an abrupt shift with 30 minutes of runtime remaining, the film focuses on Anie’s revenge. Given this change, it’s interesting that the plot summary above frames this shift from Aram’s point of view: his “perfect plan” and “carefully constructed scheme” fail. It is true that Aram makes a fatal mistake (an error involving a music CD). Yet this failure triggers the completion of Anie’s transformation from passive victim to active avenger, which began during her captivity.
Anie snaps when she hears the classical piece that Aram played as a kind of ‘theme music’ for her kidnapping. It’s understandable that this trigger causes her to strike her father when he follows her into her bedroom after she flees the kitchen where he has played the CD. She seems to have a PTSD-like flashback to her kidnapping and reacts to her father’s approach in self-defense as if he were Aram. But why does she continue to strike him until he is dead? Why does she then go to the kitchen and kill her mother? Furthermore, why does she proceed to annihilate not only Aram, but also two gangsters whom Aram enlists to protect him, his secretary, and (presumably) his wife and son?
A portion of the dialogue between Aram and the prostitute answers this question. She tells a story about an oligarch’s party for which she and some of her friends provided professional services dressed as “horny schoolgirls.” In the middle of the party, she realized that her father was one of the guests. She decided to continue as if he were not there, but her relationship with her father was never the same after that: “I was no longer his daughter” (to paraphrase the Spanish dialogue).
Likewise, Anie’s position in her family and at school is never the same after she returns to home. Relieved that she was not literally raped, her father sends her back to school, where she has to wear the same uniform that she wore during her abduction. Her classmates treat her like she is “a freak.” Her parents try to act as if everything is normal, but their anxiety about Anie is palpable. In other words, everyone in her culture has classified her as ‘damaged goods.’ Her fury and its bloody aftermath are the direct results of being treated as if she is as much a whore as Aram’s prostitute.
The ‘jest’ here is that the men of the film’s patriarchal culture do not realize the extent to which all women have been placed in Anie’s position. The men in the film are powerful, either as businessmen or gangsters — interestingly, the latter characters are gay men who are as dissolute and ineffectual as the straight guys. The women play subservient roles as wives, kept girlfriends, prostitutes, and secretaries. By assenting this arrangement, everyone bears implicit guilt for what happened to Anie, so everyone is her target for retaliation.
In other words, the devil is male and, ultimately, the ‘joke’ is on him. Like Anie, Aram is also a victim of a male-dominated culture that picks winners and losers among men. The losers are coded as female in such a hierarchy. “As any viewer of horror knows, where feminized males are”, Carol Clover* points out, “violent trouble is soon to follow.” Aram takes his revenge but doesn’t count on the masculinizing effect of his maltreatment of Anie. Her “transformation from passive victim to aggressive avenger can be construed as a regendering [from female to male] not unlike the one undergone by the Final Girl of slasher films. The difference is that whereas the Final Girl answers a stabbing with a stabbing in a narrative that explicitly equates the knife with the penis,” Anie’s preferred weapon is an equally phallic baseball bat (backed up with a shotgun for good measure).
The first two acts of the movie encourage audience identification with Aram. When the tables turn in the third act, the audience must make an awkward switch to identifying with Anie. As a viewer who identifies as male, switching between Aram and Anie was especially difficult because of the guilt of realizing that I was ‘rooting’ for Aram to succeed in his nefarious scheme. Combined with the brutal violence of Anie’s revenge, I was left in a state of nausea. I’d be interested to hear how a diverse selection of viewers reacted to the film’s spectatorial manipulation. If you haven’t seen it, Scherzo Diabolico is currently streaming on Netflix.
*Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Princeton Classics, 2015), pp. 161-62.