Roman Tragedy: Lucio Fulci’s ‘Beatrice Cenci’

Guido Reni’s portrait of Beatrice Cenci retains pride of place at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, just off Piazza Barberini in Rome. It is a beautiful painting, but the old story that it was completed by Reni on the eve of Beatrice’s execution has since been discredited by art historians; it now hangs with the slightly more neutral title Portrait of a Young Woman in a Turban and a tentative attribution to Reni’s fellow Bolognese artist Ginevra Cantofoli. In the same gallery you can see Caravaggio’s gory masterpiece Judith Beheading Holofernes, a painting reputedly composed after Caravaggio witnessed the decapitation of Beatrice first hand, standing among the crowds at her execution on September 11, 1599. Everything about Beatrice Cenci has since become shrouded in mystery and romance, including the origins of these two paintings, the bare facts of the case long superseded by legend. 

This legend was, in fact, a violent Roman family tragedy that would have suited the darker Jacobean stages of England. Rome in the sixteenth century was a city rebuilt by great noble dynasties like the Colonna, the della Rovere, the Farnese and the Borghese — the Barberini came later — names immortalised in their churches and castles, streets and piazzas, art commissions and crimes. The Cenci were among the most dangerous and volatile of these families and their story would be defined, in the Roman style, by extravagance, violence, ambition and tragedy. Even by the standards of his ancestors, Francesco Cenci stood out for his depravity and corruption. The physical and psychological cruelty he inflicted on his own family was relentless and extreme, and he was rumoured to have raped Beatrice, his only daughter. This violation would drive her to murder, she claimed, enlisting her brothers, mother-in-law and two vassals in a conspiracy for which she would be tried and executed. This is where the legend began: by killing her hated father and not yielding to her papal tormentors she became an icon of resistance for the people of Rome, a symbolic challenge to the depravity of the Roman aristocracy and the corruption of the papacy. Later, this local populist legend — or, more specifically, the lovely ‘Reni portrait’ — fed a Romantic infatuation that would inspire Shelley, Stendhal and Słowacki to produce minor works based on her story, exporting her name outside Italy and keeping her memory alive.

Even so, the popular image of Beatrice consistently overshadowed all of these works, as they failed to do full justice to her Roman tragedy. In this regard, Antonin Artaud’s The Cenci was, in some ways, yet another failure: his most ambitious Theatre of Cruelty production, it closed, unloved, after a first run of 17 days in the spring of 1935. Susan Sontag, in her introduction to Artaud’s selected works, was not impressed: “The Cenci is not a very good play,” she wrote, “and the interest of his production of The Cenci, by all accounts, lay in ideas it suggested but did not actually embody.” For Artaud, however, the text clearly had a powerful symbolic and aesthetic function. In ‘The Theatre and Its Double’ he tried to describe a show that would present “famous personalities, horrible crimes and superhuman self-sacrifices…without resorting to the dead imagery of ancient Myths”, and the story of the Cenci, with its stark mythological power and unhinged sadism, would provide him with the perfect vehicle for this ambition. For Artaud, the defiance of Beatrice represented a moral challenge to all authority, a connection also made by Pope Clement VIII, who signed her death warrant. The key themes distilled in the skeletal frame of the play would, later on, find their way into Lucio Fulci’s own adaptation of the legend, which was surely informed by it.

Shot and released in 1969, Beatrice Cenci could be seen as one more Cenci failure: Fulci expected the film to be his artistic and commercial breakthrough, but it was a box office flop that received mixed reviews and quickly fell into obscurity. Until this point, Fulci specialised in popular comedies, so the opportunity to shoot the story of the Cenci with a decent budget was a potentially life-changing opportunity for him. As a Roman native, a Catholic who was hostile to the Church and a socialist partisan, the subject matter and themes the story offered proved to be an ideal fit. He would also bring elements of his own nascent sensibility to the work: an obsession with violence and decay, a devotion to the aesthetics of shock, and a dark, Gothic cynicism. This resulted in a handsome period drama that seethed beneath decorous finery and did not flinch from the most controversial and dangerous elements of the Cenci mythology: Church corruption, institutional torture, capital punishment, incest and rape. Framed by cinematographer Erico Menczer’s painterly compositions and gritty textures, Fulci’s violence was harsh and graphic, lingering on as much detail as the censors would allow. This, along with his 1966 western Massacre Time and his 1968 giallo One on Top of the Other marked the true beginning of a “Fulci style” that would emerge over the following decade and finally explode onto the international stage in full, gory, eye-gouging glory with Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1979.

But in 1969 the explicit violence was not just aesthetic – it had thematic purpose. In Beatrice Cenci, the Cenci patriarch Francesco was Fulci’s primary agent of terror: a physically grotesque and intimidating tyrant, played with flamboyant menace by the French actor Georges Wilson. Scornful of papal authority and holding his own family in contempt and captivity, Francesco’s animal brutality was underscored by a pack of rabid dogs let loose on an ally of the Colonna at the opening of the film, tearing at his flesh in raw, bloody detail. This was a minor visual theme in Fulci’s work: trained dogs let loose on the vulnerable and victimised, facilitating human cruelty. Massacre Time opens with a pack of hounds chasing down a man and ripping him apart; the dogs belong to the son of a local landowner, a demented sadist who uses the animals to wreck bloody revenge on behalf of the family name, just like the feared Cenci. In his 1972 rural giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling, La Magiara is chased through thick forest by police dogs as the mistaken suspect of a series of child murders in a scene that crystallises her world of persecution: hounded by state and Church officials, gangs of children and a group of vigilantes who eventually beat her to death in broad daylight. In Beatrice Cenci, Francesco’s dogs are tools of revenge and restitution, as they are for the Scotts in Massacre Time, but they also express his own savage, animal instincts. On the evening that he hosts a banquet to celebrate the death of his two eldest sons (“two less mouths to feed!”) and as he corners his defiant daughter in order to rape her, the hounds begin to snarl and howl — in the courtyard and inside his own skull. 

Like so many Italian films of the time, Beatrice Cenci attacked structures of authority that were either so corrupt that they barely exist, or were actively dangerous to life and liberty when enforced. Francesco wielded physical authority through violence and terror and forfeited moral authority by his total abdication of family duties. He considered his children to be a drain on resources and the only emotional connection he had was with Beatrice, which was perverse and criminal. In Artaud’s play, paternal and papal authority mirrored each other; they belonged to the same world that would target Beatrice and that she would reject with such force. Fulci fully absorbed this lesson: for him, the story of Beatrice exposed the rotten foundations of papal authority and he could therefore use it to articulate his own personal and political concerns. Rome, after all, was the pope’s city and the capital of the Papal States, a territory in which spiritual and secular authority overlapped and often pursued the same objectives and interests. Following a spate of family murders in the city, Clement VIII had a point to prove, and, as Anthony Majanlahti noted in The Families Who Made Rome, “together they cast a different light upon the pope’s execution of the Cenci: there was clearly a problem with nobles taking the law into their own hands.” For Fulci, the key detail followed the sentence: once the Cenci had been eliminated, the pope seized their remaining assets and sold them with a large discount to Pietro Aldobrandini, the cardinal nephew. This was not simply a coda, but the context of the whole story. Fulci foregrounded the material dimensions of the Cenci saga, revealing extortion and nepotism to be the primary methods of papal justice. In the film, Francesco’s punishment for violating the Colonna is the state seizure of property amounting to one third of his fortune; later on, lawyers and cardinals discuss the value of the Cenci estate as arrangements are made for the torture and confessions of the family. Money and material assets lay at the heart of spiritual power.

Fulci described himself as a Catholic believer who was hostile to the Church and his treatment of it was certainly cynical and antagonistic, an approach that occasionally caused problems with producers and audiences. In his films, Church agents are either cynics or sadists, sometimes both; they rule with force and through fear, or by exploiting the subtle sinews of money and vice. The papal inquisitors escorting Beatrice and her stepmother Lucrezia to their final rites are hidden beneath sinister black hoods that are designed to force submission and repentance through intimidation and terror. Fulci frames them as if he is filming a scene from a gothic horror, channeling the brutal, occult menace of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Francesco himself treats officials with contempt, avoiding or defying them when possible, but even this local and domestic tyrant is dwarfed by the casual, cruel power of the papacy, which hangs like a dark veil over everything that happens in the film. In Contraband, Fulci’s 1980 poliziotteschi, Naples is ruled and divided by crime families who unite to eliminate any internal or external threats. In the Rome of Beatrice Cenci it is the Colonna and their papal allies who fulfil this function: Francesco and Beatrice threaten their interests in different ways, so must be punished. In Don’t Torture a Duckling, southern peasants are moral hypocrites prone to irrational mob violence, but in Beatrice Cenci violence and corruption are the preserve of the aristocracy and clergy: the Roman masses are at their mercy, exploited by ruling class avarice and assaulted by the physical and moral violations of the Church.

For the Roman masses, Beatrice’s sacrifice is cathartic and redemptive; in the popular imagination, she becomes a martyr, an uncanonised saint. However, like Artaud, Fulci fully exploits the ambiguity of her character, showing her to be the principal agent of murder.  When Olimpio and the bandit Catalano fail to go through with the act, she scolds them: “if you are such cowards I will do it myself!” At the required moment she is as hard and pitiless as her father and as cynical as she needs to be to succeed in her goal. She is the only one who can look at her father’s corpse and does so with gloating fascination. She enlists Olimpio in her plot by seducing him and in the end he is willing to die to protect her in an act of self-sacrifice that is both noble and abject — without a flicker of emotion, she lets him. Like Olimpio, Beatrice is physically brave, holding firm against torture as her family succumb to the screws and branding irons, and this is the key to her redemption: courage is a quality, which she displays for the sake of her family as well as her own desire for vengeance. Adrienne La Russa hated Fulci and claimed that he treated her badly on set, so it’s possible this gave her performance its brittle edge and sense of bitter determination – at the very least, it must have helped. She portrays Beatrice as a young girl who is badly abused and betrayed by every male authority figure she encounters, but refuses to be broken or defeated, even when there is no hope left. At the very end, the inquisitors cannot even intimidate her with the threat of divine judgement: “there is no sign of remorse in your devotion,” they charge, correctly. Like Artaud, Fulci would not allow her to become an object of pity, or simply a victim. Having been subject to the Church’s spectacle of sadism, she is finally transfigured and becomes the popular martyr of Roman legend.

So this is Fulci’s world, alright – a domain of power, corruption and violence. The physicality of Fulci’s cinema finds its expression here in the humid and claustrophobic atmosphere of sixteenth century Rome in summertime, but also through the sheer physical torment he inflicted on his principal characters. Olimpio is stretched on a rack and branded with scolding irons in excruciating detail. In real life, Francesco’s head was almost completely severed, but here Fulci initiates the first in a long line of iconic eye stabbings; at the end of the struggle Francesco lies prostrate and disfigured, like a victim of one of Fulci’s 1980s zombies. If there is any other work related to the story of Beatrice other than The Cenci that comes close to Fulci’s approach here it is Caravaggio’s painting: the explicit, gory detail of Holofornes’ decapitation and Judith’s contorted pose and look of fascinated repulsion is like a blueprint for the Fulci style, a harbinger of the eerily disembodied, graphic massacres to come. In Beatrice Cenci the connection between shock effects and moral polemic still exists: Fulci’s outrage had not yet hollowed out, and the film still pulses with anger and passion. The cynicism, at this stage, was political, not misanthropic. Fulci could already depict human cruelty with an explicit fury, but this was borne of a basic humanism; the overt sympathy for victims and the fact that his most prominent martyrs are women would set these early films apart from the bleak, pitiless worlds of Contraband and The New York Ripper. Susan Sontag’s description of Artaud as “a connoisseur of despair and moral struggle” could also describe the Fulci of Beatrice Cenci – sensitive to the brutality and cruelty of life, but committed to redemption and justice. There is not necessarily any hope here, but there is still a moral force. 

Sontag would characterise Artaud’s body of work as “a broken, self-mutilated corpus, a vast collection of fragments,” and this was the same for Fulci. His “vision”, such as it was, did not appear fully formed like Dario Argento or reveal itself methodically like Michelangelo Antonioni. Instead, it was achieved in fragments, across decades and genres, in films often distorted by producers or mutilated by censors. His best work shared a distinct sensibility with Artaud, defined by extravagant sensory violence, a brutal shock aesthetic and a rejection of logic and narrative — the Fulci sublime. There was nothing accidental about any of this and, after all, Artaud was a great influence on him, a fact that was as visible in Beatrice Cenci as it was in more violent and abstract works like City of the Living Dead and The Beyond. If the best book on Fulci remains Stephen Thrower’s masterpiece Beyond Terror, then one of the most useful companion pieces is Sontag’s Artaud essay, because the frustrations, obsessions and themes she identified in his scattered corpus all have close overlaps with Fulci’s own work. This was not a question of adaptation or appropriation or imitation, but of sensibility and technique. To a great degree he was able to realise on screen what Artaud failed to do on stage, and Beatrice Cenci was a good example of this: it contained all of the physical violence, psychological horror, corrosive cynicism and moral force of the popular Roman legend but delivered it in an immaculately rendered and dramatically rich period drama. Later Fulci would present the Theatre of Cruelty in an infamous run of horror movies: Beatrice Cenci pointed towards this future, but he would never do anything quite like it ever again. 

With the benefit of hindsight it is very difficult to separate the events of Fulci’s personal life from the films he eventually made. One day in 1969, he returned home from editing the final cut of Beatrice Cenci and was met at the door by his mother, who told him that his terminally ill wife Maria had committed suicide. This searing personal tragedy cast a shadow over the rest of his work: as time went on the films got more despairing and more misanthropic, as if the route to The New York Ripper had been set by the darkness and drama of his own life. Apart from anything else, the commercial failure of Beatrice Cenci would be among his first and deepest disappointments, but even after finding global fame with zombies and latex gore he would still describe it as the best film he ever made. (Before she died, it was also Maria’s favourite.) Perhaps this is because it is his most complete and coherent dramatic production, something more measured and refined than the morbid, mean-spirited, macabre nightmares he would eventually create: one example of an alternative Fulci, possibly one he really wanted to be. But I think this would be a mistake: in the end, Beatrice Cenci belongs to the same cold world as The New York Ripper and the only difference is the degree of despair. 

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