Quentin Tarantino’s new Western slave epic, Django Unchained, has momentarily resurrected Franco Nero in a hat tip to one of the actor’s more iconic roles, a coffin-wielding drifter named Django. Now through January 3, Miami Beach Cinematheque will be showing Django. For Tarantino fans, it should be a compelling footnote.
Nero has long been one of Italy’s rawest, most vital cinematic institutions. In Enzo G. Castellari’s 1974 Polizioteschi flick Street Law, Nero’s portrayal of a businessman brutalized by a bank robbery elevated the film, creating a haunting, almost lyrical meditation on violence and trauma that, without it, would have been a simplistic, easily misinterpreted message of equating vigilantism with the anti-Axis resistance. And in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s poetic and underrated adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle, a surreal story about a thieving, murdering sailor and his sexual liaisons while docked at Brest, Nero’s voyeuristic yearning for the titular character was a transcendent splash of gonzo humanism.
Django‘s director, Sergio Corbucci, another pezzo grosso of Italian cinema, was less known or accomplished than the premier spaghetti western auteur at the time, Sergio Leone. But what Corbucci lacked in elegant setups and convoluted plotting, he made up for in blistering outbursts of brutality, punchy symbolics, and semi-elaborate throwaway gags (sometimes a combination of two or all three, as in an ear gag between a bandito and a priest that Tarantino already paid tribute to in Reservoir Dogs). Django, one of Corbucci’s better known films, starts off with a heavy literalization of a classic western archetype: the man who carries death with him wherever he goes. With the jangly, lovelorn grandiosity of Luis Bacalov and Franco Migliacci’s titular theme blaring overhead, we’re subjected to three minutes of Franco Nero dragging a coffin through mud. Get it? Not so fast, as what’s in the coffin is delayed for later.
Westerns — brazenly unreal odes to a dying west practically Baudrillardian in their artificiality — tend to deal with the end of the frontier, the irony of an encroaching civilization as untamed and ruthless as the “wild,” hiding under the aegis of manner and industry: Cattle barons and desert robbers dying by the hands of cutthroat tycoons, horses and pistols being run over by trains and more advanced weaponry. In addition, they either deconstruct (or just plain revel in) the sun-scorched racism of America’s past. The last two, new guns and old hate, are relevant sub-themes here.
Django’s plot concerns a struggle between an ex-confederate general named Jackson and a bandit leader named Hugo in a virtually dead town torn between the violent clans of both. Django (played by Nero with a slightly unhinged charm and gruff ferocity appropriate to a coffin-carrying, desert-wandering drifter), of course, winds up in the center of the conflict, though not unintentionally. He’s seeking revenge on Jackson for the murder of his wife and as such, strikes up a deal with Hugo to raid a Mexican army fort where Jackson is doing business (nodding to the American tradition of doing business with corrupt dictatorships). Of course, nothing goes as planned, becoming as much blood out as it was blood in.
There are some similarities to the Yojimbo-ness of Fistful of Dollars, and it carries on the Dollars‘ series vaguely moral kind of amorality, in which a central character’s indifference allows him to act like a wandering spirit through the era’s self-defeating tribulations, in particular when Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name stalks the edges of the Civil War in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. With the Dollars trilogy, the Man’s complicity in the era’s violence and absurdity is mitigated by a relatable aloofness that allows the audience to leave the war’s absurdity with a clean conscience. Unlike the Man With No Name, though, Django not only has a name but as such is also forced to pay the consequences for his half-compromised complicity in the era’s sprawling, systemic violence, despite varied attempts at anonymous remove.
The racial politics of the film aren’t as central to the story as in Django Unchained, but they are still quite explicit. Main villain Major Jackson aims for genocide against Mexicans, leading a hooded klan to smoke out and destroy not just the banditos, but poor farmers as well. Early on, Jackson is seen game hunting with a Mexican farming family as pheasants, having his men release them Hard Target-style from the cattle stables with a chance to run before he nails the shot. It’s a sequence that both satisfies the requirements of pulp villain-building, establishing Jackson as a sharpshooter to rival Django, but also uses genre splatter for blunt poetics. As befits the genre, Mexicans and Americans are all played by Italians. While unintentional, it exacerbates the film’s racial politics by signaling that biologically there is as much genetic similarity between those of different races as there is diversity between those of the same socially designated racial demographic.
Still, the film’s notions of good and evil aren’t particularly clear cut, as the banditos are equally cruel, if also propelled by a distant revolutionary cause. Similarly, the film remains ambiguous as to whether the misogyny on display is an indictment of patriarchal abuse or merely indicative of it; the most sympathetic character in the film isn’t Django but a prostitute, violently thrown between the two sides and rescued by our “hero” in the film’s beginning. Less a hero than one whose violence and wavering creed is mitigated by lack of institutional scale — Nero’s bristling swagger plays out like a screw’s loose, giving the role a pre-Drive bit of barely masked sociopathy — Django’s desire to get his and get out becomes ours as well, as this premodern wasteland almost immediately registers as a purgatory of some sort.
Django starts in the mud and ends in a graveyard, and its central action takes place in a nearly sinking town that looks like it went through Camus’ The Plague. The film’s rendering of the Western tableux is near-Brechtian in its stark decrepitude. It’s a spaghetti western in the Rambo IV sense of spaghetti. While not on that film’s level of Campbell’s brand turn-em-into-noodle-soup CGI, there are Vincent Price-era dollops of blood. Although vengeance plays a role in the film, the damaging extremes to which Django goes to achieve it presents one of the most excruciating displays of attachment to weaponry, the self-destructive nature of which is more relevant now than ever.
–By Adam Katzman