It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie without some sort of prior knowledge such as a basic idea of the plot, an interest in one or more of the creators, or an awareness of its contribution to the development of an idea or genre. In the case of They’ve Changed Faces […Hanno cambiato faccia] (1971), although the Italian title seemed vaguely familiar, I had no idea what to expect – which was a great way to experience this film!
The movie opens with a fairly normal scene of a man on his way to work, while the music suggests we’re about to watch a poliziotteschi or some other type of police procedural. Alberto Valle (Giuliano Esperati), a corporate drone working for a car and aircraft manufacturer, arrives at work and is summoned upstairs to meet first his manager, then the vice president, and finally the CEO on the top floor. Before turning to greet him, the CEO puts on a crackling record which sounds like the theme music to a contemporary Italian gothic or giallo movie. The CEO informs him that he’s fortunate enough to have been plucked from obscurity as a mid-level employee at the behest of the company’s owner, a respected scientist, who would like to meet him immediately. His name is… Giovanni Nosferatu!
Since this is basically the equivalent of calling your antagonist Johnny Dracula, it’s not difficult to guess what the general trajectory of the movie might be – but how we get there and what happens along the way are what makes it interesting. Journeying to a village on the point of collapse which is close to his destination, Valle agrees to give a ride to a hitchhiker (Francesca Modigliani) in return for directions to find petrol. Apparently Laura’s standard approach when hitching is to walk around bare-chested underneath a fur-lined ¾-length coat. Initially dubious, he agrees to take her with him, but when they arrive at his destination she seems reluctant to let him enter Nosferatu’s villa, asking whether he wouldn’t prefer to keep driving with her instead – or, if not, to at least have sex with her first – but he turns her down in favour of professionalism and leaves her at the gate.
Although nobody had responded to his knocks at the gate, barely has he begun to make his way up the driveway when two small white Fiats peel off from either side of the gates and drive up behind him, escorting him on either side. The drivers wear white jumpsuits and helmets but don’t speak or turn their heads. His eerie honour guard accompanies him to the villa, where he is welcomed by Nosferatu’s secretary Corinna (Geraldine Hooper). She entertains him until, after the sun has set, Nosferatu (Adolfo Celi) appears at the top of a staircase – announced on the soundtrack by the same music that the CEO had played to Valle (which delighted me no end)! Nosferatu reveals his purpose for requesting Valle’s presence – he wants Valle to be the new CEO of the company.
Dinner consists of an experimental range of food, sorted into courses by colour. When Valle complains that the food doesn’t taste like the ingredients that went into it, Nosferatu quotes Freud to argue that temporal pleasures are a distraction from productivity and that a rational society would get rid of such distractions. The furniture in Valle’s living quarters is set up to play product advertising pitches whenever they’re used – he can’t sit in a chair or have a shower without the same ad being repeated every time. Travelling around the estate grounds at night, he thinks he sees a body in the grounds. Corinna informs him that he’s mistaken, that it’s just a log, but that it’s too dangerous to approach – and as soon as he tries, the headlights of multiple small white cars illuminate him from all sides, revving threateningly. These cars seem to be constantly in motion around the villa when seem from above, like a prowling pack of dogs on constant alert for intruders (or escapees?). While Valle and Corinna become lovers, Laura is abducted by the drivers and fed upon by Nosferatu.
Writer/director Corrado Farina is adept at playing with the conventional gothic aesthetics of mist and crumbling buildings, but is equally skillful at using modern trappings to a similar end, turning the restlessly ranging automobiles into a creepy threat and layering peculiarities and oddities into the corporate world for which Valle is being groomed. The conversation of the visiting board members includes surprisingly varied topics, such as an appeal to the authority of German philosopher Marcuse in support of the thesis that science fiction has achieved the status of an art form, before the board meeting itself plays out as a nightmare confirmation of all the worst instincts of purely profit-driven capitalism. A board member is disposed of for failing to notice that his workers were reading during their break times. An environmentally unsound detergent is deceptively rebranded so that all existing stock can still be sold. And there’s a bizarre succession of three different ads marketing LSD to workers, each modelled after a different artist – Jean-Luc Godard (rejected), Federico Fellini (rejected) and finally the Marquis de Sade (a farrago of sadism which goes on for much longer than the other two and is ultimately successful). Two years before The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), Corrado has not only anticipated Hammer Studios’ attempt to turn Dracula into the ultimate bloodsucking capitalist, he has done so much more successfully and with greater finesse. The title – They’ve Changed Faces – refers to the ways in which creatures such as vampires change to suit the society they find themselves. Although Valle is initially horrified at seeing the extremes of capitalism laid bare, shooting Nosferatu and leaving the villa, he is ultimately defeated when he finds Laura waiting for him in his car – having become not, as assumed, a blood-drained corpse, but rather another part of the corporate machine, no longer interested in doing her own thing but just another career woman. Unable to deal with the disillusionment of seeing carefree youth embrace soulless conformity, he returns to Nosferatu’s villa to take his place.
Giuliano Esperati is fine in the lead role but not particularly exceptional. Adolfo Celi, best known for his role as the lead villain Largo in the early James Bond movie Thunderball (1965), brings a greater presence and a calm certainty to his role as the ultra-rationalist corporate vampire. Geraldine Cooper (Deep Red) displays an eerily dispassionate calm with just enough flashes of warmth to convince that her character might actually feel something for Valle. I only wish that there had been more to Francesca Modigliani’s role, as she brings a great deal of liveliness and personality to a character whose main purpose was to represent youthful vitality and a flouting of societal conventions. I was shocked to see that this was the first of only two roles for her – after appearing the following year in The Sin [Bianco rosso e…] (1972), her career disappears from IMDb.
They’ve Changed Faces won the Golden Leopard award for the Best First Feature at the Locarno International Film Festival in 1971. Corrado Farina only made one more feature film, Baba Yaga (1973) – an adaptation of Guido Crepax’s dodgy erotic horror comic Valentina which was butchered by the censors and has only recently been made available in a version approximating the director’s intent. Continuing his collaboration with editor Giulio Berruti and cinematographer Aiace Parolin, I’ve seen it described alternately as a classic of eurotika or as ploddingly dull – but based on They’ve Changed Faces, I’d be prepared to give it a chance. They’ve Changed Faces is an unexpected gem and deserves to be more widely known.