I love genre actresses like Edwige Fenech and Rosalba Neri, but I sometimes wonder: what about Marina Malfatti? Sure, she wasn’t as wildly sexual as her peers, but she still made for lovely company as a supporting actress in films like All the Colors of the Dark and The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave. Until now I’ve never had the chance to view her as a leading lady, and with A Black Ribbon for Deborah, Malfatti has the chance to prove herself as the lead character, and she carries this eerie take on parapsychology on her shoulders rather well.
Her short hairstyle here seems like an odd choice; it took me a while to get used to it, although the look grew on me and is something that I’ve come to readily identify her role in this film with. Being that a lot of these films were influenced by Rosemary’s Baby, the choice of hairstyle was likely to give her a Mia Farrow vibe.
There’s been some talk about how this film isn’t really a giallo, but I’d like to think of it as a less typical example of the genre. If I had to compare it to other films of its ilk, I would say that Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion and The Perfume of the Lady in Black come to mind. Like some of the more atypical gialli, there are also some well implemented supernatural elements that cause the film to eventually become a ghost story that could be interpreted in more than one way. The ghost might be real or one could draw the conclusion that the ghost exists in Deborah’s mind and represents her regret and denial of being a sterile woman.
However, the supernatural mystery element isn’t the only strength. Thanks to Malfatti’s talents as an actress and some well-staged ideas, there is a consistent, impressive emphasis on the void that is present in Deborah’s life due to her condition. Right off the bat it’s made obvious that something is missing, as she appears to have an impulse to share a lot of love and affection by buying toys and handing them to fortunate children and by spoiling her and her husband’s dog, Igor. Deborah’s behavior here suggests, despite her sterile condition, an impossibility to suppress her mother-like tendencies to nurture and love, and it also further strengthens the claim that her husband makes: “a child is what she wants more than anything.”
Her yearning is further heartfelt and marvelously portrayed from her interaction with several children in a particular scene that takes place at an orphanage, which is shot in a way that combines feelings of both joy and melancholy, or better yet, it conveys bittersweet emotions. It’s a remarkable sequence that would likely deter anyone from calling this Euro-trash. It’s genuine filmmaking from the heart.
Included in the storyline to further showcase the theme of parapsychology is Ofenbauer (Gig Young), a parapsychologist and close friend to Deborah and Michel. Being that Michel is a hardened scientist, the film takes the opportunity to contrast the different fields in an entertaining light, with a number of light-hearted conversations between Michel and Ofenbauer. The frequent debating that takes place between scientist and parapsychologist are an interesting side-note to the central plot that helps give a little food for thought, especially since the parapsychologist makes a lot of fine points. It’s like a nice rub on the shoulders to those who like to believe in supernatural phenomena and that science can’t explain everything.
Things get notably more interesting when Ofenbauer holds a dinner party to demonstrate his abilities as a medium to naysayers like Michel. Ofenbauer proposes an experiment where he is blindfolded, has Deborah select a book from the shelf, and has her silently reveal the title of that book to the guests. The idea is that all of the guests must go to a different room in the mansion, and in the darkness concentrate hard on the title of the book. Ofenbauer will attempt to receive their thoughts and correctly guess the title of the book. It’s a fun little scene, and I really like the way the house starts to feel empty when it goes dark and quiet, despite being full of partygoers. In the darkness, Deborah witnesses an ominous yellow light that begins to glow through a window that’s accompanied by a haunting piano theme. This is the way the filmmakers have decided to indicate that Deborah, being a medium and all, is having a premonition of a violent event that is to later take place that evening. Her thoughts and emotions transform into kinetic energy and wine glasses explode, and with her violent thought waves interfering with Ofenbauer’s, he is nearly killed. It’s a simple but effectively eerie scene.
At some point Deborah begins to have delusions about being pregnant; her doctor describes to her husband that this is a rare case of a false pregnancy brought on by a delusion that results from an unbearably intense need to procreate, and given her current fragile state, it’s best to not tell her that the pregnancy is false and eventually, when the phenomena runs its course, say that the child was stillborn. Whether or not this condition is real, it’s difficult to imagine any kind of doctor making such a diagnosis or giving this kind of advice, and so this ends up being a small weakness to the central plot. It nonetheless is very significant to the way things play out.
There’s definitely a good connection between director and muse here, as Marcello Andrei seems to enjoy filming Malfatti, consistently lingering on shots of her shopping and wandering the busy street. These scenes are telling a story but are also stretched out and accompanied with mood enhancing music so that we are granted with plenty of the lead actress’s photogenic qualities along the way.
The music varies across the spectrum from classical to rock. There’s a nicely realized scene during Deborah’s inevitable breakdown in her art-room, where the camera twists and turns, as Deborah starts violently destroying her own artwork while progressive rock music booms. Though predating it by a year, the scene feels reminiscent of Deep Red.
There’s vibrant use of cinematography, especially during the ballroom dancing scene when Deborah first claims that she is pregnant and also during a nice montage flashback scene depicting earlier, happier times in Deborah’s marriage. It provides a drastic contrast when it cuts from happy memories to her pitiful state in a clinic. It’s like the movie is really trying hard, and succeeding, at being heavy.
Also, though I honestly didn’t mind it, there’s an almost superfluous soapy drama inclusion with Michel seeming a little too close to his assistant, Elena (Micaela Esdra), which is sort of a subplot that I really didn’t think went anywhere.
The supposed shock ending isn’t that surprising but still is a fitting ending to everything the story has built up to and is delivered in a way so that the revelations still chill, despite being predictable.
While I enjoyed A Black Ribbon for Deborah a lot, I do realize that it’s probably a little messy, and being that it’s a bit long, also requires some patience. It’s not a case of being patient for the final payoff but more a case of there being several payoffs throughout the film for those with the right kind of sensibility, which basically means not everyone’s going to like it, but the ones who do will dig the Hell of it (like me).