Monday, April 6, 2009

Mandinga (1976): or, Help Me Rhonda

I don't know if it's an official Natural Law or not, but fellow aficionados of the weirder side of trash cinema know it to be true: Anything That CAN Be 'Sploited, HAS Been 'Sploited--Probably in the 70s, and most likely by Italians. These wildly disturbed and mercenary filmmakers really left no stone unturned, no taboo unsexified. The laundry list of dirty sheets includes such topics as Nuns, Nazis, Black Culture, Bikers, just goes on and on.

Thanks to the controversial 1975 drama Mandingo in which James Mason and Susan George took on the atrocity of American Slavery in the insightful manner only a couple of Brits possibly could, the Italian Exploitation machine smelled a new historical period ripe for sexing up and cashing in on. One year later, they had their result: Mario Pinzauti's 1976 Slaverysploitation effort, Mandinga.

A Whip in the Hand, The World By the Tail

We open in slavery-era Louisiana, where widowed plantation owner Richard Hunter (Serafino Profumo) is overseeing the harvest of his cotton crop. With the help of a sadistic foreman (Cesare Di Vito), Mr. Hunter keeps his human cattle in line with liberal use of the whip and occasional out-and-out murder. Also, being a lonely man since his sainted wife Elizabeth passed, Hunter takes out his sexual frustration on the prettiest and spunkiest of his female slaves.

Into this White Supremacist Amusement Park comes Rhonda (Paola D'Egidio), sister of the dead Elizabeth--a money-grubbing city-dweller and all around eeevil bint. Her decision to visit her former brother-in-law is not fully explained, but soon it's clear that she was probably kicked out of her East Coast home town for rampant perversity. When she witnesses Richard whipping a muscular new slave into broken submission, the gleam in her eyes and the way she bites her lip leave no doubt as to her favored selection from the Special Needs menu.

But the Italians of the 70s were never big on letting suggestion do when IN YOUR FACE ACTION is a viable alternative, and so later that night Rhonda sneaks into the stables where the buff, handsome slave has been bound to a crossbeam in a borderline Christ-pose. Having this towering, powerful, godlike body completely in her power, Rhonda takes full advantage by doing an extended striptease, bumping and grinding against the helpless, sweating slave, and finally climbing him like a live oak and having her wicked way with him! This scene just goes on and on--I'd be surprised if any footage Pinzauti shot found its way to any editing room floor.


So basically what they've done here is prefigure the "Your Name is Toby" scene the monumental Roots TV mini-series, only played it for BDSM titillation rather than moral outrage. I don't think you have to be a resident of the racism-scarred American South to feel dirty after watching this scene, but I am one, and let me tell you, it helps. Also helpful: the Italo-porn music that plays over the whole thing, naturally.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Hunter takes center stage next, playing out almost the same scene in reverse with a new female slave, "a princess of the Mandingo tribe in Africa" who betrays a little too much royal pride for the Master's tastes. Hunter's sexual joy in beating the proud woman is so apparent, the actual rape is almost an afterthought. Like the previous whip-and-fuck scene, this one goes on much longer than is comfortable, and may occasion the need for a quick shower among the more sensitive and/or perverse in the audience.

It's not long before Rhonda and Mr. Hunter discover just how much they have in common sexually, and Rhonda wastes no time turning this to her advantage. Following Hunter to a secret shack in the woods where he usually brings his slave mistresses, Rhonda grabs Hunter's whip (iykwim) and says, breathlessly, "Who knows how many girls here have trembled and cried...and liked it!" Fewer than you'd think, I'd wager. When Hunter demurs, Rhonda comes on even stronger, baring her breasts and saying, "I want to be your White Slave...something Elizabeth never was! Whip me!" Shower time again? I think so.

"And over *there* is where we can hang the Love Swing!"

So Rhonda becomes Hunter's mistress and has her sights set on inheriting the plantation when the older man checks out, but he refuses to marry her out of respect for his wife's memory. Also messing up Rhonda's plans: the child Hunter has sired on the slave princess. After the Mandinga dies in childbirth and the other slaves spirit the babe away, Hunter shows some uncharacteristic (read: contrived by script necessity) humanity and orders his foreman to find the baby, leading the moustachioed ruffian to murder 2 or 3 more slaves trying to get information. It's all for naught however--the baby is gone, perhaps with the Wind.

So things have been pretty hot and heavy and very very dirty up to this point. The production values have been all bottom drawer, and the dubbing typically awful, particularly the embarassingly sub-Amos n' Andy "Yassa Massah!" dialog from the slaves. That said, the "life on the plantation" scenes aren't bad (leading me to wonder if they were cribbed from another, better movie), and D'Egidio is arrestingly evil and believably perverse in her role, pretty much committed to being as unlikable and strangely sexy as possible. And the costuming isn't bad either.

Things are about to come to a screeching halt, however, as Hunter's England-educated son Clarence (Antonio Gismondo) comes home to help his father run the plantation. About 20 years have passed in the jump-cut between the baby-hunt and Clarence's arrival--our only real clue is the baby powder in Mr. Hunter's mutton chops. Clarence's dubbed voice provides some LOL entertainment, as he sounds like Little Lord Fauntleroy all grown up. Otherwise, though, Gismondo's role could have been played with more depth and profundity by a cardboard cut-out of Lou Costello. Dire.

Gismondo: English As Fuck

Knowing the old man is going to kick the bucket any day now, Rhonda sets about trying to seduce the young heir to the estate, hoping to get her hands on the plantation *that* way. Unfortunately Clarence has fallen in love with pure-as-the-driven-snow Mary (Maria Rosaria Riuzzi), daughter of the village priest, and Rhonda has her work cut out for her trying to lure the stuffy Englishman-cum-Southerner away from his virginal girlfriend.

Lucky for her nuts don't fall far from the tree, and Clarence's nuts are made just as tingly by slave-whipping as his old man's. This leads to a rather amazing scene in which Rhonda orders a male and female slave tied to that tried-and-true crossbeam, and she and Clarence take turns whipping and raping their victims before falling on each other in a filthy frenzy! Far from revelling in this, though, Clarence is disgusted with himself ("I allowed myself to get carried away with your perversions!" If I had a nickel...) and goes back to Mary, to whom he quickly proposes--leading, of course, to a lengthy post-engagement/pre-nuptial shagging of the sort we've come to expect from our filmmakers by now.

But the path of true love never did run smooth in the miscegnation-ophobic South, and after another jump-cut spanning at least nine months Mary gives birth to a black baby boy, setting Clarence into a murderous frenzy egged on by the gleefully bloodthirsty Rhonda. Mary swears her innocence, but is not believed (strangely), and the explanation for the mis-conception is one that I'll leave you to discover for yourself should you be moved to watch this film (it's part of the grab-bag of fun and filth known as The Grindhouse Experience, Vol. 1), as it's one of the few WTF-entertaining things about a dire second half of the movie. Suffice to say it ends with a lot of tragedy and bloodshed and an almost Shakespearean coda from the surviving family members, that would be kinda cool if it weren't so amazingly out-of-nowhere and unearned.

Tied to the Rapin' Post

As far as "make you feel grimy" exploitation flicks go, Mandinga has to be considered a rousing success. However, the movie does drag pretty significantly in the second half, with a lot of Clarence-learning-to-run-the-plantation stuff that stops the movie cold in between outrageousnesses. The cultural disconnect of the Italian take on American Slavery is moderately interesting, but again, the movie's WTF-ery is interspersed with so much boring dramatic stuff as to lose its effect. Not that it isn't a ripe subject for drama--rather that drama is obviously NOT Pinzauti's forte. And the characters are all either so reprehensible (Rhonda, Mr. Hunter, Clarence) or so powerless and naive (Mary, her father the Priest) that it's hard to care about their intrigues for very long--certainly not as long as the director seems to want you to.

If ever there was a "your mileage may vary" movie, this is one. If you came out of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS with a smile on your face, you might find something to like here. On the other hand, if that's the case, you might also want to stay on the other side of the room from me. :) The wild wrongness of the opening and the BDSM-obsessed evilness of Rhonda gains a little jaw-drop score for the movie, but it commits the unforgivable sin of getting boring as it drags on, and I can't really say I feel better or more educated in history or exploitation movies for having watched. Therefore, I'm staying neutral on this one with a 1.5 Thumb rating.

Rhonda: Dreamin' 'Bout Screamin'


Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, as you probably know, Jacopetti & Prosperi got there first, even before the Anglo-Americans, with Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), but that film from the maestri of Mondo is exploitation of an entirely different order, filmed on a monstrously epic scale with the cooperation of Papa Doc's Haiti. I think it's one of the greatest films of all time, but that's just me. It does seem like Mandinga is a bit more, er, intimate in its emphasis, and I suppose it must be seen to complete(?) one's tour of the Italian slavesploitation genre -- but then there's the German variation, Slavers, on Grindhouse Experience Vol. 2. What a world of riches this is!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Samuel Wilson--I do know *of* Goodbye, Uncle Tom, but haven't seen it...and if Mandinga is a more light-hearted take on the genre (like Salon Kitty is more light-hearted than Ilsa, maybe?), I'm not sure it's my cuppa joe. However, I *do* have Grindhouse Vol. 2 sitting at home unopened, so I guess I'll be obliged to give Slavers a look at some point. Though the idea of a German Variation has given me the roller-coaster tummy already! :)

The Duke of DVD said...

Sheesh, I've not watched this film, but have heard a lot about it, and now I must see it. Goodbye Uncle Tom sounds like it might be even more offensive.

"Tied to the Rapin' Post" is genius btw.

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