This is the second part of a two part review/essay on DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, Lucio Fulci's giallo masterwork from 1972. As I will be discussing the implications of the film's ending, as well as all the naughty bits in between, this entire review/essay should be considered one big SPOILER WARNING.
RELIGION, SEXUALITY AND THE FANTASY OF PURITY
I attended both a Catholic grade school and a Catholic high school. I spent twelve years of my life swimming in church doctrine, learning hymns and prayers, religious morality and fundamentalist revisionist history. I did all of this as a non-believer, non-baptized and therefore unsaved from my inherent sinfulness. Without the parental reinforcement of what I was being taught in school every day (my parents were non-believers), everything I witnessed, everything I was taught about the Bible, about Jesus and his miracles, about the saints and their martyrdom, was no more than mythology to me, no different than the tales of Hercules and Perseus that I read so much of as a child. As my friends prepared to take their steps through the sacraments, I sat silently with them, memorizing the steps and prayers that I personally wouldn’t take and wouldn’t say. During mass, I was to genuflect and stand when required. Other than that, I just had to remain silent. It was all so strangely fascinating to watch. Here were my friends, all of whom believed something I did not, all of whom felt their religion was true as strongly as I felt that it was all nonsense. I was immune to the power of the prayers. For me, they had all the power of saying “Bloody Mary” three times whilst standing in front of a mirror, which is to say, no power at all. The only thing about their beliefs that I ever shared was the fear.
I’m cured of it today. I no longer feel it, even if I can now recognize how ingeniously, devilish devised it is. The fear of hell, the fear of eternal punishment, is something drilled into children day in and day out in religious education. The anxiety it can produce, not just in childhood but throughout the life of the believer, is quite profound. It is, pardon the pun, hell to be a young child in a religious environment. Not only does lying or stealing a crayon mean that Santa Claus won’t bring me the Super Soaker I wanted, Jesus would sentence me to never ending torture too. So much fear ran through my little body as a child. There are non-believers today, grown into adulthood and long separated from their faith, still suffering from this fear. Recovering from Religion and organizations like it offer services to non-believers tormented by that last niggling bit of doubting fear: “what if I’m wrong?”
Much of this anxiety is focused on what I would consider – and what most people would consider – normal human behaviors, many of which we have no real control over. In most of my conversations with believers, I’m assured that if I don’t believe in God, I will be sent to hell for all eternity when I die. Their suggestion is to simply “believe”. This wrongly assumes that belief is a choice, that I could simply flip some subconscious switch and suddenly be filled with belief in God. Only this isn’t how belief works. Belief is not a choice. I can proclaim belief all I want but it would only be a lie. I won’t go deep into epistemology and the foundations of belief. I will only say that beliefs are formed on a subconscious level with acceptance of a truth claim based on internally held standards of evidence, preconceptions about the phenomena in question and the relation between our understandings of a subject versus our willingness to accept authority. We don’t simply “choose” to believe in anything. So if I die unable (not unwilling) to believe in God and it turns out God does in fact exist, I will have no choice but to accept punishment for a crime (not believing) that I could not help but commit. To most Christians, this is justice. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The most normal human behavior, sexual attraction/longing/desire, is perhaps the most slandered by religious teachings. From a young age, I was taught that sex is just for marriage. In fact, sex outside of marriage wasn’t referred to as “sex” at all. It was called “fornication”. The former was considered God’s intended purpose and was therefore “good” while the latter was considered a rejection of God’s chosen way and was therefore “sinful”. Of course, the idea that sex can result in procreation therefore sex is only for procreation is a naturalistic fallacy, but that didn’t matter to any of my teachers. The only thing that mattered was that I, someone with a budding natural attraction to girls when I was in grade school and a full blown attraction to girls in high school, was somehow “sullying” the idea of sex and sexuality by having these feelings outside of a marriage. Imagine a group of youngsters, all approaching their teenage years, all discovering this attraction to the opposite (or same, depending) sex, being filled with all of this natural curiosity and desire, all being told that what they’re feeling is “bad”, “sinful” and/or “dirty”. Imagine them, slightly embarrassed by their new found crushes, their bodies changing rapidly, the confusion and trepidation of sexual awakening… Now imagine those same young boys and girls sitting in a confessional being judged for the crime of simply being human. Being a young, barely teenage boy in a judgmental, slightly sinister environment like a Catholic school was troubling at times. It was bad enough I was going through puberty. Now every erection I got was inching me ever closer to an eternity of torture.
If I were a girl, it would have been even worse. In medieval times, women were little more than bargaining chips in marriage, property to be traded. It was no different in Biblical times either. As women were treated as property by territorial males, virginity was of the utmost importance. Taking a woman’s virginity was no different than staking your country’s flag into freshly discovered soil. This attitude has survived, more or less, into modern times. I’ve always found it more than a little bit disturbing that a woman’s worth is determined by the status of her hymen. Women who lose their virginity on a whim or to a mere acquaintance are looked at differently (sometimes even by other women) than someone whose first sexual encounter was with their longtime boyfriend or husband. Women are constantly shamed for their sexual escapades, something men rarely have to endure. The Madonna/whore dichotomy created by years of deeply instilled, patriarchal-led shaming of women for their simple enjoyment of sex (not to mention the ever-going war against readily available female contraception and abortion that threatens to reduce women to slaves of their biology) has bled through medieval times and has infected modern culture to a startling, though unsurprising, degree. Taken to extremes, this obsession with female purity has led to cultures where women need to be covered head to toe so as not to incite male lust, which would be a sin, even if they really were not to blame for the thoughts and actions of another individual. And the less said about female genital mutilation, almost entirely religiously motivated and done for the sole purpose of robbing women of sexual enjoyment, the better.
And what does this all have to do with DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING? Well, let’s see. We can start with the idea of religion and the cultural acceptance of it, and how Fulci uses it to create distrust and misdirection.
CATHOLICISM AND WITCHCRAFT
The opening scene of the film, Maciara digging up the skeletal remains of her child, is complete free of all context. We immediately assume guilt on her part, both for the death of that child (which is never fully explained) and for the deaths we are about to witness. The setting of DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING is one of the most interesting aspects to the film. The village of Accendura is looked at as a cultural artifact, in many ways preserved in time by its segregation from the outside world. The sprawling modern highway that exists just outside its boundaries might offer a way into the village but it doesn’t seem to offer a way out. It’s telling that the village men don’t leave Accendura to have relations with prostitutes. The prostitutes come to them. With the exception of the children, no one in the village seems at all interested in even seeing the outside world. When the outside world does come to them, it’s always female in nature (either the prostitutes or Patrizia) and it always brings with it a taste of a world foreign to their own and the fear that naturally causes.
The villagers of Accendura live in a world where the supernatural forces of black magic, voodoo dolls and witchcraft coexist with traditional Catholicism. What’s interesting is how those two religions are presented here. While we immediately come to distrust Maciara for her involvement with black magic, as the film progresses the black magic she is seen practicing is revealed to be little more than rural superstition. We know Maciara isn’t to blame for the death of the children. We learn from the first murder that the boy was strangled. Yet Fulci keeps showing scenes of voodoo dolls, Maciara sticking pins through their bodies. We keep hearing about magic, even though the film explicitly tells us that magic has nothing to do with it (even if the film reverses that stance, in a way, at the end) and we still distrust this woman. We still feel like she is probably to blame for the death of the children. Why?
The ultimate irony of the film, the murder of Maciara, answers this question for us. While the police (and the viewer) know that Maciara is not guilty of the murders, she is still viewed as guilty by the villagers. That Maciara is beaten to near death in a church yard is one of the film’s most bitter, most cynical details. The men who murder her could be seen as either suffering from the side effects of a culture that granted arcane powers to voodoo dolls or suffering from the extreme religious indoctrination of Christianity that holds it as God-given law that thou shalt not “suffer a witch to live”. Either way, this brand of vigilante justice, horrific and cruel, is religiously inspired. The film doesn’t see it any other way and neither can the viewer.
Beliefs foreign from our own, especially religious beliefs which are, so we’re told, granted to us by an all-knowing, all-perfect creator of the universe, are immediately viewed as suspect. It doesn’t matter that all three of the great monotheisms are little more than plagiarisms of one another, the devil is in the details. But oddly enough, the ideological differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity are relatively minor. They’re literally three flavors of the same bullshit. So when an Islamic suicide bomber commits an act of terror, he is branded an Islamic extremist in the United States, his act of terrorism linked to his religion. But when a Christian, pumped full of righteousness, blows up an abortion clinic, he is spared the label of “Christian extremist” in the United States. Because Christianity is OUR religion and it exists without fault (and no, I don’t believe that), even though the underlying cause of both acts was the same religion viewed through different cultural lenses.
The religious dichotomy in DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING, the arcane superstition of black magic versus the culturally accepted, seemingly benign Catholic Church, runs through the entire film, and Fulci seems to regard this dichotomy as false. What really is the difference between a superstition that regards voodoo dolls as physical conduits and a religion that believes by praying over unleavened bread you can turn it into the flesh of a God? There really isn’t one. It is all magic. The ultimate point of the film seems to be that there is no escaping the nasty side effects of believing in magic, whether that magic is culturally accepted or culturally viewed as a relic. When Maciara’s body is discovered by the police, the commissioner condemns the townspeople stating that while we can build highways “we’re a long way from modernizing the mentality of people like this”.
Given the mix of religions in the village of Accendura, it’s difficult to know which religion is to blame.
THY DESIRE SHALL BE TO THY HUSBAND, AND HE SHALL RULE OVER THEE
The Catholic Church’s obsession with female sexuality and the supposed inherent sinfulness within it stems from the myth of original sin. Like the Greek and Roman myths before it, Christianity holds that a woman was to blame for the fall of man, both literally and figuratively. It was Eve that tempted Adam just as it was Pandora that opened the jar. This attempt at theodicy is laced with misogyny. Eve and Pandora were the first of their kind, the first female ever created, and look at the trouble they brought with them. It’s almost as if the world would have been better off had women never been created. Heinrich Kramer, the infamous German clergyman behind the terrifyingly misogynistic call for femicide, the Malleus Maleficarum, summed up the Catholic standard view of women thusly: “women are by nature instruments of Satan – by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation”.
The female characters in DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING are few. We’ve already met Maciara, the wrongfully accused witch. We have Michele’s mother, a strict and shrill woman who escapes any kind of meaningful characterization. There is Don Alberto’s mother, Aurelia, quietly enabling her son’s murders. There’s Malvina, Don Alberto’s deaf mute sister. There are the two prostitutes. And then there is Patrizia, the bored, young sexpot busted for drugs. That’s not exactly the strongest bunch of characters but each serves a thematic purpose in the narrative.
Looking at Patrizia, we are presented with a problem. This is a film about a priest killing children so they can ascend to Heaven pure; that is, as virgins, spiritually uncorrupted by women. We understand that this is a ridiculous fear, that the desire for sex and the participation in it does little if nothing to harm whatever spiritual lives we may (or may not) have. We understand that sex is a human desire not to be feared and that the coloring of human sexual impulses as “sinful” is far more harmful than helpful (Fulci’s film presents us with a strange perversion of the puritanical slasher film morality; instead of “have sex and die”, we have “die so you can never have sex”). Yet when we first meet Patrizia, she is strutting completely nude in front of a child, even asking him if he would like to have sex with her. We see her later offering a child a kiss in exchange for changing her tire, an offer that ties Patrizia, even it’s just tangentially, with the visiting prostitutes who exchange carnal favors for money.
Cinema is littered with fantasy fulfillment fluff detailing the sexual conquest of an older woman by a younger man. It’s one of the most common tropes of the boy’s only B movie. In any other film, Patrizia’s introduction would have made acceptable, if a bit uneasy, erotic fodder. Barbara Bouchet was an incredibly attractive woman. It’s difficult not to gawk at her naked body as she strolls towards the camera, just as difficult as it is to not feel a bit queasy when the camera cuts back to the painfully awkward expression of a young child faced with an older, sexually intimidating woman. In his book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, Stephen Thrower notes that Don Alberto and Patrizia are two sides of the same pederast coin. I’m not sure I share his opinion, at least not the pederast bit. It isn’t sexual attraction or sexual conquest that interests the two characters. It’s the power inherent in sex that serves as the parallel. Patrizia is a strong willed, sexually liberated woman, who enjoys her sexuality. Don Alberto is a repressed, fearful man, terrified of his sexuality. When Kramer wrote his Malleus Maleficarum, women like Patrizia were his targets, but Don Alberto and men like him were his target audience.
By the time the film reaches its end, this fear of female sexuality evolves into a more general fear of women. This fear runs so deep that the final scenes involve Don Alberto threatening to throw his deaf mute sister Malvina off the side of the cliff. Even a young female child is a threat to the patriarchal culture Don Alberto inhabits, if not personifies. There’s a whiff of poetic justice in the film’s final moments. During a struggle with Martelli, Don Alberto falls off the side of a cliff. His extended fall embodies the fall from grace he feared the boys would face. As Don Alberto’s body tumbles towards the earth, Fulci inserts shots of the priest’s face slamming into the side of the cliff, each impact tearing a large, bloody chunk of flesh from his skull. This image recalls the primitive (though still practiced) execution method of stoning, perhaps the single most called upon punishment in the entire Bible, which involves the guilty party being buried up to their waist in the ground before being pelted in the face and head with stones.
As cheap, crass and unabashedly exploitative as those final seconds are, in a film full of Biblical allusions, religious hypocrisies and disconcerting cultural attitudes, Don Alberto’s fate feels pointedly, satisfyingly perfect, something that could very well be said about the entire film.