Giallo Revisited: Luciano Onetti's Sonno Profondo and Francesca

I've been hearing rumors that a few independent filmmakers are trying to revive the Italian horror subgenre of giallo, a type of murder mystery film that was made in Italy during the '60s, '70s and early '80s. With so many gialli finally seeing the light of day again through high-definition blu-ray releases, it stands to reason that giallo fans who are also budding directors will try to emulate that particular style of cinema in their own work.

This particular blog post focuses on Luciano Onetti, a screen writer, director and composer from Argentina who has produced two giallo films: Sonno Profondo (2013) and Francesca (2015). Unlike other neo-gialli that have surfaced in recent years, Onetti has gone to great lengths in both films to emulate the specific look and feel of gialli from the '70s. Read on for my complete review.

As with many gialli, Onetti's films are simple in terms of plot but rich in terms of style. In Sonno Profondo (which translates to Deep Sleep), a faceless, leather-gloved killer learns that he has become the target of another killer, a killer who witnessed and photographed his most recent slaying. In Francesca, Inspector Bruno Moretti (Luis Emilio Rodriguez) races to solve a series of brutal murders that are patterned after Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, murders that may also be tied to the disappearance of a teenage girl named Francesca from a few years prior.

Onetti's films rely heavily on expressionistic usage of color and shadow in their shot compositions, and both are rife with disturbing psycho-sexual imagery. Onetti directed Francesca as more of a standard feature film, yet he directed Sonno Profondo in a series of voyeur shots so we see most of the story through the killers' eyes. He uses these shots so much that I doubt that anyone but well-versed giallo fans would understand what is happening in Sonno Profondo.

As I said earlier, Onetti does everything he can in both of these films to adhere to the aesthetics of a '70s giallo movie. In fact, if it were not for a handful of 21st century anachronisms that appear in a few of the scenes, both films could be mistaken for long-forgotten gialli that somehow got lost during the last three decades. Even though these films were shot in Argetina, where the national language is Spanish, the dialog is Italian. The characters interact with various items from the '70s (e.g., rotary phones, bulky reel-to-reel tape recorders, etc.) and drive cars from the same era. Onetti's musical compositions for his films follow the style of noted giallo soundtrack composers such as Ennio Morricone and the Italian progressive rock band Goblin. Even the yellow-covered mystery paperbacks that inspired the creation of giallo films make cameo appearances in both movies.

With such astonishing attention to detail, I have to recommend Onetti's films for giallo lovers. Yet where Onetti falters as a director is what keeps me from recommending his stuff for the non-giallo crowd: He hasn't mastered the direction of people. When these films shift from point-of-view shots from a killer's deranged perspective to dialog scenes with two or more characters, the pacing becomes stiff and awkward. In spite of the ample amounts of eerie, strange imagery that he provides though his understanding of cinematography, it felt like Onetti was trying to figure out how to show people talking to each other in a convincing, cinema-appropriate way. Equally awkward are the fight scenes: They look staged, which in turn drains the narrative of suspense. It's hard to fear a killer when his fighting prowess looks so wooden.

In the case of Francesca, the story itself suffers from its lack of a main character. By the logic of the film's narrative, Inspector Moretti should be the main character and the viewers should follow him through his investigation. Unfortunately, neither the film's script nor Onetti's direction of the actor who played Moretti allows that character to assume the movie's focal point. Francesca may be a mystery about serial killings and a missing girl, but it's certainly not about the people who are investigating the mystery.

I'm hoping that Lucian Onetti is able to refine his directing skills in his future work so that his contributions to the neo-giallo movement (and possibly elsewhere) will find an audience outside of the previously converted. He obviously has plenty of talent to offer, and I'm curious to see how it will evolve in the years to come. With any luck, he won't limit himself to the genre that inspired him to make films in the first place.


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