Featured Film: APHRODITE, GODDESS OF LOVE



Original title: Afrodite, dea dell'amore
Director: Mario Bonnard
Assistant Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Sergio Leone, Mario Bonnard, more
Music: Giovanni Fusco
Release Date: 29 August 1958 (Italy)





Isabelle Corey ...  Lerna



Anthony Steffen ...  Demetrio



Irène Tunc ...  Diala



Ivo Garrani ...  Antigono



Giulio Donnini ...  Erasto



Massimo Serato ...  Quinto Rufo



Andrea Aureli ...  Kibur

Tomoro and Kibur

John Kitzmiller ...  Tomoro

Clara Calamai ...  Stenele



Released in 1958, the same year HERCULES was released in Italy, APHRODITE, GODDESS OF LOVE is a great example of a PEPLUM film that's difficult to categorize and that's purely Italian in tone, atmosphere and structure. This is a type of PEPLUM Hollywood would have never produced. The story is almost impossible to describe even though the storyline itself is simple enough: A voice over tells use that Antigono (played by the great Ivo Garrani, King Pelias in HERCULES) becomes the Archon of Corinth and he'll supervise the creation of a canal from an ambitious idea conceived by Nero. The problem is that the land where the canal will be built has an old temple dedicated to Aphrodite. The Archon says he'll destroy it but his aides say this will upset the populace. Antigono promises to rebuild a new temple somewhere else and a famous artist/sculptor, Demetrius (Anthony Steffen), will supervise the rebuilding of the temple and its statues.

The resurrected law for all to see

Antigono realizes that the building of the canal will cost more than what the treasury has, so he and his scheming assistant revive an old law that had been since forgotten in which everyone has to pay 50% of their earnings in taxes during the time of war. The law was bronzed on a plate outside a temple, which is cleaned up so folks could see it with their own eyes and that the Archon is not robbing them blind and proof that the law already existed. We then see a slave merchant complaining about the new law. Some soldiers overhear his complaints which results in his death. Everything the slave merchant owned is now confiscated by the authorities, which includes all the slave women and the merchant's girlfriend, Diala (a statuesque Irène Tunc). 

In the outskirts, we see an old man and a young woman, Lerna (Isabelle Corey), walking about. Both are caught in between a marching army and the upset populace whom lost  their homes and land for a few bucks. An uprising occurs and Lerna is arrested along with the uprisers. The old man, we learn, is a priest and heads to a secret hideout where his disciples are and learn about Lerna's fate.

Diala and Lerna become friends in captivity

While Demetrio arrives in Corinth as a Hero, in a dungeon, Diala befriends Lerna.  Another slave merchant, Kibur, buys all the slaves from the dead one and Diala and Lerna become his property, even if Lerna wasn't a slave girl. Lerna escapes Kibur's camp and heads to the old Temple only to meet Demetrio who's walking the grounds for inspiration. Demetrio is smitten with Lerna but Kibur's guards are after her and Demetrio fights with the men. As an artist, he has not much of a fighter and he and Lerna are held captive, attached to a post and whipped before they learn who he is. Diala sees this as her chance to escape her current enslavement so she secretly heads to the Archon's palace and tells them about Demetrio being held against his will. The army crushes the slave merchant and both Diala and Lerna are now the property of Antigono again, but this time becoming courtesans at the palace. Both women vie for the affection of Demetrio but also the inspiration for his artistic creations. Diala is hired to model for the statue of Aphrodite and believes Demetrio is interested in her but in fact he's interested in Lerna, who, in turn, is devoted to her religion, Christianity. The focus of the rest of the story is about who Demetrio is really in love with which creates the usual set of double crossings and schemings. There's much more to the story, including an outbreak of the plague and an event surrounding Antigono's wife, Stenele.

Diala realizes that Kibur's guards captured the famous artist Demetrio

Once the story settles down at the palace, the film smoothly moves along and becomes a melodrama of sorts but calling it just a melodrama would be doing it a disservice. It's much more than that. One of the writers for the screenplay  was none other than Sergio Leone. Like SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR, Leone was one of many folks involved in the final creation of this film. Unlike SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR though, APHRODITE is not an all out mess. It's solid from beginning to end.  Leone is also credited as assistant director.


Even though the "persecuting the Christians" storyline might seem tired or boring to many, in this film it's actually used in a cool way. It's all about transference, which is the part I really love about the story. You see, the beautiful irony in the story is how Lerna's devotion to Christ becomes the source of inspiration for Demetrio's Aphrodite. He sees in her as a light or beauty that few women possess but the inner light in her stems from her deep devotion to Christianity. Demetrio is drawn to her on many levels: because of his art but also as a man. Physically, Diala is the model he uses to shape the statue (photo on the left) but Lerna is the true soul and the one he's drawn too. This contrast is sorta brilliant. The statue of Aphrodite is the merging of Diala's body and Lerna's soul. The juxtaposition of  the themes is quite good and not too obvious. The screenplay is a constant source of contradictions, which is a common theme in all of Sergio Leone's films.


The actors are all good, with no one really standing-out has they all play their roles appropriately. The exception may be a robust Ivo Garrani as Antigono who plays his role with such panache that it's it almost borders on camp but not quite. He's so convincing as the resolutely unsecured leader, always trying to better himself with a better position, more wealth, a better wife, etc, that his evil but confused ways are almost endearing. The main star is Isabelle Corey but the actress that steals almost every scene she's in is Irène Tunc. Irène's physical attributes (probably too plump by today's standards) are quite impressive even if her acting is a bit stilted. Both Isabelle and Anthony are believable in their roles as the forbidden lovers. Steffen as the famous artist is perfectly cast. Masculine but not in a macho way, Steffen is credible as an artist who's perception of things around him makes him susceptible to changes, including the newly emerging religion called Christianity. As for Isabelle Corey, the diminutive French actress who made several PEPLUM films before disappearing from the face of the earth, is endearing as the fragile Lerna who is the source of inspiration that propels most of the story. 

The supporting cast is populated with a good number of familiar actors, including Livio Lorenzon and Massimo Serato who's entire role has been all but removed in the US version.

The film score by Giovanni Fusco is great with memorable themes throughout. The main theme is difficult to get out of one's head once you hear it. The sets and costumes are gorgeous but not showy. The stand-out aspect of this film is the look/cinematography. The entire film has a pastel tone which is truly eye-pleasing. APHRODITE, GODDESS OF LOVE was filmed in two rare film processes: the colour was by Ferraniacolor and the film stock itself was in the rarely used Schermiscope. Few films were shot in Schermiscope and combined with Ferraniacolor and the look of the film is quite different to what films looked like back then.

Dancers demonstrate the beautiful pastel tones used for the film's overall look

For those looking for action and muscular heroes throwing boulders around they won't find much to enjoy here but for those who enjoy PEPLUM cinema in all its forms, including dramas inspired by "a chapter of Greco-Roman history," well APHRODITE, GODDESS OF LOVE fills the need quite beautifully. 


I have this film from two main sources: French DVD which is so spectacularly pristine that it's almost contemporary looking. The DVD has a French and Italian audio track. Only French subs are available when watching it in Italian. But I have it in Italian with English subs. No one else has this version as it's one I created myself from a third source and some clever thinking. Then there's the TV version shown in the US. The image and audio, from the copy I have, is horrible. To make things even worse, all of the scenes with Massimo Serato meeting Antigono at his Palace have been removed (except for the exterior ceremony and the last meeting), which, in turn effectively removes the entire plot point of the creation of the canal, which, basically, destroys the ENTIRE POINT OF THE STORY. Amazing! The US version is to be avoided at all cost. I won't even do a Fan Dub of this one as I'm satisfied with the Italian version with English subs. You can view this version on my PEPLUM TV channel from time to time.

Rating: 9 out 10

Pros:

- great cast
- surprisingly strong script
- beautiful pastel colours and cinematography
- excellent production values
- authentic tone and look
- lively dance numbers
- fantastic score

Cons:

- ending a bit abrupt
- a bit aloof

1 comment:

Unknown said...

APHRODITE, GODDESS OF LOVE

Hi,

When will this be on PEPLUM TV again (with English sub titles)? I think I'd like to see it.

Gary