Once you’ve seen every frame ever shot by Kenneth Anger or Alejandro Jodorowsky, where do you go for more of that same sort of thrillingly strange alchemical/occult ritual cinematic fix? If you’ve asked yourself that question—and who hasn’t—I’ve got a hot tip for you: Italian avant gardist Carmelo Bene’s utterly berserk 1972 “adaptation” (more like a detonation) of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 tragedy Salomé.
Bene, who died in 2002 at the age of 64, was a towering, if controversial figure of Italian intellectual life in the later half of the 20th century. He first gained notoriety as an actor in a 1959 staging of Albert Camus’ play Caligula in Rome, and as a hellraiser who spent over 300 nights in prison one year. He was mainly known for his work in live theatre and opera. His admirers included Gilles Deleuze, Salvador Dali, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Pierre Klossowski, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and others. Bene is perhaps best known to audiences outside of Italy for his role in Pasolini’s film Oedipus Rex. He only made movies for six years—from 1968 to 1973—and considered his Salomé to be his best. Certainly it’s one of the oddest films ever made…
When Bene’s movies were screened at the Harvard Film Society a few years back the program declared that “his films resist synopsis” and boy oh boy is that an understatement. It is difficult to describe in words just how truly batshit crazy Salomé really is, but here is how IMDB gamely tried:
A psychedelic re-telling of the biblical story. Salomé is the daughter of the second wife of King Herod. The King is infatuated with her and after she fails to seduce the prophet John (The Baptist) she dances for the King in order to ask for his execution. The story is told in a bizarre way of fast cuts, repetitive dialogue and extreme satire.
Although this is technically not at all inaccurate, it’s so dry as to be practically meaningless in telling you much of anything useful about Bene’s freakstorm of a film which features imagery like a berserk Christ with vampire fangs at the Last Supper, a naked, bald Verushka clad only in colorful jewels (a look pinched for a costume in Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, believe it or not) and a man speaking as he lustily eats grapes from a woman’s ass (did I mention that Salomé is NOT safe for work? I probably should.) Salomé was played the gorgeous black American model Donyale Luna who had prior appeared in an Andy Warhol film, in William Klein’s fashion satire Who are you, Polly Maggoo?, as the girlfriend of God (played by Groucho Marx) in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo and as Oenothea in Fellini’s Satyricon. Talk about a resume!
A Christ-like figure gamely tries (and ultimately fails) to crucify himself.
Aside from the elaborate costumes, grotesque/gorgeous faces, and various and plentiful visual elements that would not in any way be out of place in an Anger or Jodorowsky opus, Bene’s Salomé also calls to mind the Living Theatre, which was clearly an influence here (Julian Beck acted along with Bene in Oedipus Rex in 1967), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and unavoidably Fellini’s Satyricon. Bene’s Salomé has the look and feel of a roughly hewn, bargain basement Fellini film costumed by Leigh Bowery, and his own performance in it is so weird that it appears that he’s out of his fucking mind the whole time, seemingly improvising his dialogue like a horny, drooling Klaus Kinski after he’d dropped some particularly bad acid and laughing all the while like a grimacing, lunatic Woody Woodpecker.
When asked once to describe his work, Bene used the word “degenerate.” At Salomé‘s 1972 premiere in Venice before an audience of 3000, violence broke out, Bene himself was spat upon and the riot police had to be called in to protect him (the first time the police had ever been on his side, Bene later remarked.)
Bene’s Salomé has been posted on YouTube in its utterly insane entirety. Despite the fact that there are no English subtitles, forge ahead with no fear. I’m not the only person who will tell you that it makes no difference whatsoever to your understanding of this film if you are fluent in Italian or not. None! If you know the general storyline of the Biblical tale Wilde’s play was based on, you’ll understand that once Salomé has danced for Herod she is to be given whatever she wants—half of his kingdom if she asks for it—and she wants the head of John the Baptist (the weird old dude who won’t shut up) on a platter. Frankly even if you don’t know that much, it still really wouldn’t matter at all, trust me…