‘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.