8 September 2006 | Bunuel1976
KEOMA (Enzo G. Castellari, 1976) ***
Director Castellari is nowadays perhaps best-known (if at all) by the younger generation of film buffs for one thing: making the original INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1977), which Quentin Tarantino has been threatening to remake for years now. However, in my opinion, he should instead be remembered for making this impressive, belated Spaghetti Western gem.
An odd blend of violent action and heady mysticism apparently concocted by one of the credited screenwriters Luigi Montefiori (better known to hardened Euro-Cult fans as an actor under the alias of George Eastman) but, as star Franco Nero and Castellari himself state in the Anchor Bay DVD supplements, the script took so long to get written that they decided to work without one and make the dialogue up as they went along! That the end result is so satisfying (and practically unique in the subgenre) is a remarkable achievement in itself.
Keoma is a half-breed returning home from the American Civil War to find his hometown ravaged by the plague and overtaken by the villainous Caldwell (Donal O' Brien); among his cohorts are Nero's three half-brothers who had made his childhood a living hell, with his surrogate father (William Berger) and colored mentor turned banjo-playing town-drunk (Woody Strode) unable to do much to counter Caldwell's oppression. A Bergmanesque, cadaverous old woman is frequently seen roaming the streets dragging a cart behind her...
What follows is the typical confrontation between Good and Evil but Castellari infuses the familiar mixture with several directorial flourishes: occasionally striking compositions (particularly a memorably Fordian opening shot), frequent use of slow-motion in true Peckinpah-style, flashbacks in which Keoma is a spectator to his own past experiences (inspired by Elia Kazan's THE ARRANGEMENT !), a touch of elliptical editing, Christian symbolism (Keoma is crucified at one point) and, most distressingly of all, a folksy soundtrack (inspired by Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, no less and warbled...er...sung by a shrill, high-pitched female singer and an out-of-tune deep-voiced male) which narrates in song the action we're seeing on the screen. I say distressingly because the Guido and Maurizo De Angelis compositions found here have forever been a thorn in the side of even the film's staunchest admirers!! Personally, I didn't mind the female singer so much after a while but when her (possibly drunk) male companion took over in the last half hour, I was in for some cringe-inducing moments for sure...!
Despite these misgivings, the film is still one of the best Spaghetti Westerns out there (and certainly the last great example of the subgenre); its undoubted highlight is provided by a terrific, lovingly protracted action set-piece in which Nero, Berger and a reformed Strode (back to his former arrow-shooting glory - perhaps a nod to the role he played in Richard Brooks' splendid THE PROFESSIONALS ) wipe out most of Caldwell's gang. Their triumph is short-lived, however, because both Berger and Strode lose their lives in the ongoing struggle (Berger poignantly so, while Strode's death scene is particularly great), with Nero almost bowing out himself under the strain of his siblings' torture - who have subsequently disposed of Caldwell and taken over the town themselves; the final confrontation, then, between Keoma and his three half-brothers is eerily set to the "strains" of Olga Karlatos' (playing a woman Keoma had earlier on saved from a plague-infested colony) wailing and screaming as she lies giving birth to a child amidst the carnage!
While at first I was disappointed that the Anchor Bay DVD only included the English dub, having watched it now it seems clear that the actors were all speaking their dialogue in English on the set - although, as connoisseurs will certainly know, this was all re-recorded back in the studios anyway (as was common practice in the Italian film industry). Still, if ever it gets shown again on Italian TV, I'll be sure to check it out just for completeness' sake. Thankfully, however, Castellari contributes a highly enthusiastic and informative Audio Commentary in which he discusses his major influences while making the film, among them Sidney J. Furie's THE APPALOOSA (1966), Altman's McCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) and Peckinpah's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973).
Ultimately, Franco Nero in the title role is almost as iconic a figure as Django and, hopefully, I should be getting to another fairly obscure but highly intriguing Spaghetti Westen of his - Luigi Bazzoni's MAN, PRIDE AND VENGEANCE (1968), an eccentric updating of Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen", co-starring Klaus Kinski and Tina Aumont - pretty soon...