‘People are the same the world over,’ comments Antonio Focaccia (Ugo Tognazzi) in Marco Ferreri’s controversial 1964 cult drama, now re-issued on blu-ray for the first time in the UK by Cult Films. It’s a downbeat sentiment, but one that nails the hot streak of anger about the way that society is going; I’m a big fan of Ferreri, best known for La Grande Bouffe, but also one of the most idiosyncratic film-makers who ever made a film. The Ape Woman is a striking and thought-provoking film, seen here for the first time in the director’s original cut, one that censors would not allow to be shown in 1964.
A useful comparison might be David Lynch’s The Elephant Man; once again, we’re talking about an innocent with a freakish, exploitable appearance, in this case, a woman with a medical condition which means that her face and body are covered in hair. The unscrupulous Focaccia, who would sell his own grandmother to make a buck, discovers Maria (a remarkable Annie Girardot) being cared for in a convent. Claiming to have managed a previous act known as ‘the equine brothers’, Foccacia recognises a golden goose ripe for exploitation, and sets about signing Maria up for a kind of stardom that she can’t imagine. Focaccia aims to exhibit her to a gawping public, but first must train her to regress and act like an ape for dramatic purposes in a Pygmalion in reverse scenario. Focaccia takes her to Paris where the sophisticates demand a discomforting striptease; eventually the two end up married and sharing a bed, but Focaccia’s iron grip on his prize proves stifling for them both…
Like Lynch’s film, The Ape Woman is based on a true story, that of Julia Pastrana, and it’s easy to see what attracted a director known for his rage about social avarice. Maria’s plight is a moving one; she was quite happy making minestrone soup in the convent where the nuns recycle tin-foil and postage stamps for humble charity works. Maria is less happy cavorting on a (stolen) tree that Focaccia erects as a home for her, and even less so confined a cage. Focaccia is all about the bottom line, and his personal brand of exploitation stays with Maria until her untimely, avoidable death (bearing his child) and even beyond. Italian censors found the original ending, in which Focaccia continues to exhibit her carcass after her death, just too dark, but this grim post-script is re-instated here.
This blu-ray comes complete with a 90-minute documentary on the director himself, and such is my enthusiasm for Ferreri, I’ll be reviewing that in a separate post. Ferreri trained as a vet, and his anxieties about the exploitation of animals is featured in his masterpiece Bye Bye Monkey, which takes place in and around King Kong’s corpse lying on the Manhattan shoreline after his grand fall. But here, there are no animals involved, just people who offer more cruelty to each other than any animal could. Foccaccia’s mistreatment of Maria is agonising, and while the relationship reflects badly on how men have treated women, it also hits a more general theme about man’s inhumanity to man. A neglected classic, The Ape Woman is a substantial, effective film that should be commended to serious cineastes and humanists alike; one hopes that people the world over have moved on from such cruelty, but the jury is still out.
CultFilms presents the 4K restoration of Marco Ferreri’s The Ape Woman on Blu-ray and digital from 11 October 2021.
One of the great lost films of the 1960s. Ferreri’s Bouffe was a big arthouse hit but I don’t remember this getting a reissue because of it. Just shows that there are still some good old movies locked away in cupboards. This sounds fascinating indeed and I will seek it out.
Ah the cult film, and La Grande Bouffe, truly what a way to go! The way the real Pastrana went was sad, in childbirth, in Russia, after delivering son like her genetically, which died 3 days later. She had a beautiful voice, which didn’t survive mummification by a Moscow doc… her husband found a new patsy, made $ but ended up mad in insane asylum. In 2012-13 her remains were returned to Sinaloa Mexico and buried. I’ve never watched the film so don’t know if it covers the post script, will give it a try. Thanks!
Wow, I had no idea that the original story was so widely known. This film isn’t hung up on similar details, although has a similarly melancholy film towards the lady involved. The post-script is very much about suggesting that things don’t pan out well for the husband. I just watched the feature doc on the director last night, and will post that up soon; he really was quite a character, and films like La Grande Bouffe typify a fearless attitude to cinema and the world. Worth investigating!
Hm. Don’t think the library is going to get this, even with a nudge. Doesn’t sound very PC.
Is railing against ths avarice of society not PC where you are?
I could try to tell them it’s not an exploitation flick, but I don’t know if I’d be able to convince them. May have to call you as a witness.
Is this a library or a court? Does your library do exploitation ‘flicks’?
Not many. Libraries are a family-friendly space.
What would you consider to be exploitation?
In film, a movie that tries to get an audience by exploiting sensational, shocking, or controversial subject matter.
Leading to nunsploitation and petsploitation…
Also Alexsploitation. Reprehensible.
Goodsploitation. Shameless cash in on the brand.
I’ve lived long enough now to know man’s inhumanity to man, so like Booky it’ll be a big fat nope from me too. I don’t want to be made sad when watching a movie, but it does sound very worthy. I did see The Elephant Man back in the day and it had a profound effect on me at the time. Also I wonder why the Focaccia guy is so named, seems odd to be named after some yummy bread.
That crossed my mind too! They should have called him bruschetta. While not quite as mystical as the Elephant Man, this is a good film, but very sad to think that things like this can happen, so Ill give you a box of hankies and hope you cheer up.
I’m not sad now silly!
A big fat nope from me. Watching humans treat each other like this is not why I watch movies.
So with the documentary, you essentially got 2 movies for the price of 1.
I hear you, and I get it; this is a very uncomfortable watch because it details man’s inhumanity to man.
And yes, bonus time, the doc gives me a double hit!