The 10th Victim (1965), dir. Elio Petri

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A particular strand of science fiction is built upon a certain question: what would happen if society’s morality became unbound, creating a culture of legalised killing? In The Running Man (1987), the arena between life and death becomes state-sanctioned reality TV entertainment, with the garish aesthetics of a game show. Battle Royale’s (2000) mass violence restages this moral question as high-schoolers fight to the death upon an island, inspired by Kinji Fukasaku’s experience as a teenager in World War II. The Hunger Games (2012) situates itself as a futuristic, downtrodden dystopia, its young inhabitants randomly selected as tributes, but remains limited through its younger audience. But perhaps the most bizarre rendition of this question is The 10th Victim.

The 10th Victim is unable to escape its aesthetic; its aesthetic is its reason for being. The 10th Victim relies upon the garishness and absurdities that dominate late 60s cinema. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) cradles a robot doll upon his chest. Bras conceal guns. An alligator is bathed in water. Saxophone plays stand motionless upon a podium, as action moves on around them. A house is surrounded by limbless statues. Part of the film’s joy is in its vision for the future, just as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) predicted the evolution of television. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) combines its 1960s fashions with tablets and modern passport control.

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Is it the future, or is it 1965?

The 10th Victim delivers a futuristic vision, with white backgrounds, city steps and computers. Petri drowns certain shots in yellows. PanAm flights land upon American tarmac; Marcello wears cool, suave sunglasses; women wear white dresses; telephones look like game controllers. Marcello is in love with The Phantom, his favourite comic book. Parts feel like an early James Bond film: both the gadgets of the Sean Connery series, and the absurd colours and throwing everything at the wall of Casino Royale (1967). As we witness the training programme, other hunts going on around parked cars, it feels as though we’ve stumbled on Bond’s training at MI6, with Q offering an array of fantastical gadgets. A cigarette is lit from a lighter emanating from a metal claw. Caroline (Ursula Andress) customises one-of-a-kind body armour to protect herself, invisible and matching her skin.

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The training sequences feel like something out of a James Bond film

Beyond its aesthetic, The 10th Victim asks questions. The 10th Victim captures a world in transformation, a hyperbolic version of the present reality. Marriage becomes a casual affair, moving between wives in rapid succession. Weddings are held on aeroplanes. IVF has given rise to a generation of women born from stem cells. Service stations are no longer a place for petrol and a bite to eat, but a place for sex amid a selection of prostitutes, where Marcello pulls a Holden Caufield, finding space to hide in a room but without desiring sexual contact. Looking out to the golden sunset of the beach, a regime of murder becomes justified by a religious cult, worshipping the sun in translucent robes with bathing suits underneath, as onlookers throw tomatoes. The 10th Victim’s youthful mortal fear isn’t so far apart from Logan’s Run (1976), where the state operates on killing its population at 30, leaving the ruins of old age as a hermit in the remains of Washington DC.

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Murder becomes justified by a religious cult

The 10th Victim begins questioning the role of the media, in a world where Marshall McLuhan’s own theories around the role of television, radio, newspapers and other mediums were gaining traction as a celebrating scholar. A giant, moving eye watches from the bedroom as a piece of abstract art, as though it were the eye of Big Brother. Caroline shoots with both her gun and her camera. Death becomes an act of performance to play towards the camera. After shooting a young Hamburg man as victim at a horse race, Marcello becomes met by constant questions from interviewers, but objects to the constant barrage. The television offers an all-seeing eye, as monitors spy on Marcello. At the Colosseum in Rome, we acknowledge a history of performed violence going back millennia. The aerial helicopter flies over Rome’s fountains, squares and churches, surveying the best location for the cameras. Death becomes a media spectacle and commercial, staged with elaborate teacups, signs and cheesy dialogue for the Ming Tea Company.

 

The 10th Victim’s most gripping sequence might be it’s opening, as we follow an Asian man’s desperate escape from death on the streets of New York City, seeking the help of a cop, intercut with the rules of the game laid out in exposition. We feel his pain as he is killed by a woman in the Masoch Club. The 10th Victim imbues itself with a socio-political reality still relevant today. America is presented as a space of violence: guns are openly carried in hunts on the streets of New York, as though the assassinations of the 1960s and the school shootings today weren’t enough. Rome becomes caught behind restrictions: churches and restaurants refuse to allow hunts to be committed in its spaces, as though its restrictions were as simple as no smoking signs today.

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Hunts are openly committed in the streets of New York City

Our animal instincts regress through state sanction, hunting game transposed against humanity itself. Where does the difference and boundaries lie? Murder becomes perversely justified: in the wake of World War II, expressing our rage and inhibitions in a controlled manner stops wars. Even Hitler would have been a member, we are told. Marcello and Caroline turn their brushes with death into a flirt, imbued with sexual tension, staging elaborate ruses and fake-outs until Caroline eventually succumbs to fate, Marcello heralded by the media. Or does she? Neither of our protagonists can escape the clutches of death.

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Reality (2012), dir. Matteo Garrone

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Reality is more than just a film about reality television: it also acts as a parable on family and obsessive belief. The phenomenon of Big Brother (1997-present) is not merely television, but its sociological implications are fascinating.

For Luciano, Big Brother represents opportunity and fortune: despite his already respectable home, furnished with elaborate lampshades and with the economic power to take his family on holidays, it offers the potential to create the world’s most perfect, happiest family. But the path is not one towards happiness; the myth of fame is the path towards broken families, depression and a shattered community.

There are some interesting parallels to Rocky (1976): in Rocky, we are introduced to an everyman from Philadelphia, whose seemingly impossible journey to winning the title is not out of pure greed, but to make a name for his city and its small, family-owned businesses. Luciano becomes the talk of the town, and as a fishmonger in Naples, is interested in supporting this business. Luciano also achieves his dream – but does he go about it in the right way? Big Brother no longer becomes the path towards his desire, as a stepping stone to a prosperous family, but his end goal.

In another way, it is a satirical take on Christianity – a warning on how modern television becomes a distraction from religion, yet as an empty, meaningless farce. The old myth was religion (immortality and happiness) – the modern myth is the path towards fame. Luciano becomes a charitable saint of sorts, giving his homely possessions and blindly spending on the homeless, beyond the point of sorting their lives out. What will a homeless man do with a lamp or a chair? Later, when he is feeding the homeless at a mission, we see a man walking up wearing expensive headphones – but they are still in the same situation as they were in before. Charity work is a deeply religious, humanitarian act – but Luciano does so in order to be spotted by the programme’s producers, supposed secret agents deeming him a good man worthy of appearing on the programme. An invisible, assumed force offering judgement on one’s acts to gain a reward.

In another scene, Luciano speaks to two women besides a memorial candle, asking if they know if he can do anything more to get into the House – capital H. The women think he means the house of God – offering him that all he needs is faith, and he will be able to enter it. Heaven.

In the final scene, Luciano has made a pilgrimage to the Big Brother house in Rome, and secretly sneaks in. But he remains an invisible force – able to watch through two-way mirrors, the same way the programme’s producers look upon the housemates – and stares into a security camera unnoticed. He has become Scrooge, exempt from the rules of time and space, watching on the people within the house – a Paradise of sorts, full of happiness, music and colour. He has become God.

Caesar Must Die (2012), dir. Paolo Taviani & Vittorio Taviana

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Caesar Must Die utilises some documentary elements. The Tavianas never become characters within their own work, but the cinematography is too perfectly composed, the editing too refined and the prisoners who become the film’s subjects perhaps not candid enough to label as ‘fly on the wall’. In many ways, it feels more a drama about a group of actors than a documentary, presenting all the anxiety and the sense of wanting to kill each other that can come with the process of acting.

But it never feels theatrical. None of the actors have microphones; there are no giant LCD screens projecting the performances to a stadium. The footage of the play itself rarely feels like a filmed performance of a play, but it engrosses the viewer as if it were a filmic version. The auditions convey none of the brash, bright colours of The X Factor (2004-present) or Britain’s Got Talent (2006-present), nor the humour and awkwardness of the auditions for big budget films.

These are not the amateur actors that place a rehearsal between their day job and looking after the kids. Prison life is dull, cast in monochrome. The theatre brings colour to their lives, but only on the one night of performance, before they return back to the mundane in the space of minutes. These are men who have been imprisoned for years, if not decades, some of whom are on life sentences. Their days are a routine of staring at the ceiling, eating food, perhaps the odd exercise, perhaps the odd chore, perhaps a book from the library. They have few distractions; it becomes their life, not a hobby. The outside world exists as poorly applied wallpaper, temporarily bringing colour as we look out upon the sea that they will never touch again.

We see the prisoners relate their own experiences to the characters in the play. Not as an exercise by the director, but in their own time and in their own understanding of it, understanding if far better than an everyday actor from the outside. Their own experiences transform them into Roman legionaries; they know the frustration of not being able to see their wife, or the pain of bloody murder, or of drug trafficking. In the close-ups, you can see the pain behind their eyes. When they speak of revolt, it is also the secret wishes of the prisoners themselves. They want libertas.

In many ways, because they embody the characters, it feels more a gritty modern adaptation of Julius Caesar (1599), the confined mazed corridors of the prison standing in for the streets of Rome. The focus isn’t on the rehearsal room, but on the actors performing amongst themselves in their cells, or in the courtyard. At the end of the performance of a scene, we may see a script page, or a discussion about a character’s motivations, or an argument between the real people that carries the same intensity as the characters they are performing. Reality and the fictional characters are blurred. But it acts only as an interjection to the narrative of the play, which we are carried forward through in narrative order until it reaches its stage conclusion.