Grown up games
Children aren’t always as innocent as they seem if Maladolescenza is anything to go by, in many ways a discomforting drama from 1977 that undoubtedly has to be among the most controversial and scandalous movies ever to come out of Italy. With a cast consisting of no more than three it takes the form of a tense chamber play whose plot is played out in a pictorial forest where the two adolescents Fabrizio (Martin Loeb) and Laura (Lara Wendel) are meeting every day in their summer holidays just like they’ve been doing for the past few years. Laura is deeply in love with the somewhat older Fabrizio, even though he constantly makes fun of and teases her with it. He wouldn’t, however, mind sleeping with her but she’s not ready to go all the way like he wants her to. Enter the chilly, pretty Sylvia (Eva Ionesco) a little, manipulative blonde and quite a bit of a seductress. She doesn’t hesitate to seduce the lustful Fabrizio with her willingness and easily manages to twist him around her little finger, which ignites a cruel ménage à trois with a dramatic and fatal outcome.
But not only must poor Laura face being rejected, she also has to endure many kinds of bullying that gradually grows more and more vicious, physically as well as psychologically. What sometimes is truly shocking is the level of malice and sadism that characterizes these harassments, but they aren’t the cause for the heavy polemic that’s been surrounding Maladolescenza (and in that respect it’s astonishing if a scene involving the mutilation of a tied down bird hasn’t gotten some society for the prevention of cruelty to animals on the go) but rather the erotic elements served up by the story. Love between young people in the movies isn’t news, by now it ought to be possible to have a relaxed attitude towards the naked human body, indeed, minors have even been able to appear completely in the buff without the censorship raising as much as an eyebrow. The at the time 15 years old Nastassja Kinski in To the Devil a Daughter and Brooke Shields in the widely acclaimed Pretty Baby by Louis Malle are just a few examples out of many.
Naturally, in these two instances the context of the nakedness has been entirely different from Maladolescenza that has achieved its notoriety by not only making the 12-year-old girls and the 17-18-year-old boy undress on numerous occasions (some relatively innocent), but at the same time letting them participate in long and explicit sex scenes that even older and more experienced actors and actresses would refuse to perform. Such as when Sylvia and Fabrizio, as part of their continuous humiliation of Laura, make a direct attack on her weakest point by far her sexuality by self-asserting and recklessly displaying their own. These are, to be sure, bold performances that compel one’s respect, but you can’t help doubting whether the young protagonists at the time of production have been emotionally ready to take part in erotic embraces of such a candid nature, or whether there has been someone to secure the welfare of the children as well as taking care of their interests. It can, however, not be denied that this age aspect gives the drama a certain dangerousness, and seeing that the cinematography for long stretches of time possesses great visual and picturesque beauty, the movie plants itself somewhere in between art and exploitation.
But is this one of those times where the end justifies the means? What does the director want to tell with his story and does he really convey a message that makes the extremely frank exposure of young actors morally acceptable? By way of example the radical American director Larry Clark got away with his graphic portrayal of rootless youths and their sexual habits in the frightening and hopeless AIDS-story Kids from 1995 that understandably made many parents worry about what their own children might actually be doing when they were not at home. A lot of people called Clarks actual intentions with this movie in question, but where it was possible to substantiate his in-your-face approach to his material, it can be a lot more difficult to defend Pier Giuseppe Murgias immediate purposes with Maladolescenza. In the marketing campaign alone the three young actors appeared completely nude on the publicity posters and when you’re choosing to sell a movie on these grounds, you’re sending (especially in this particular case) some dubious signals that aren’t diminished during the first 30 or 40 minutes of playing time, where Murgia demonstrates a strong fascination for buttoned up shirts and exposed panties, whereupon he - as mentioned - goes a step further.
These circumstances do to an alarming extend entirely overshadow the story, which behind the sordid Lolita-propensities conceals some quite interesting views on jealousy, erotic obsession and how sex as a means of power can ultimately have great emotional consequences. Themes worth dealing with, to be sure, but to see two such young girls (who at their age should think of anything but sexual intercourse) enact what in reality is an adult drama makes Maladolescenza a surreal and extremely unpleasant experience. Would it have made any difference to let the girls be about three or four years older or at the very least tone down the graphic sexual elements and rely more on suggestion? The end result would most likely be a cold, rather cynical but technically well crafted piece of work with generally unsympathetic and moderately mannered, artificial characters (except for Wendel) but without its sensational status, which unfortunately seems to be this features main attraction and only raison d’être.
X-Rated Kult DVD has obviously been forced to piece Maladolescenza together from different film elements in order to release it absolutely uncut. And it shows. Large portions of the movie are actually in good shape and pretty sharp to boot, whereas other parts clearly have seen better days and look somewhat grainy and soft. Small and larger scratches appear frequently and a couple of times the picture sort of ‘shifts’ for a moment. And now and then the backgrounds seem to be a little too much ‘alive’, probably a sign of the compression but you can’t rule out the possibility of the master being in less than perfect condition. But it’s in no way disastrous. Furthermore it’s a nice surprise to see that the colors to a large extend are warm and vibrant, skin tones look natural and the black and white levels are satisfying as well. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is enhanced for 16:9 television sets, which is always a good thing. So with the obscurity and age of the movie taken into consideration this is, on the whole, a pretty good transfer.
For this test the original Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack was chosen. It is hardly dynamic but apart from a couple of instances with noise and background hiss, this is basically an OK listening experience with a clear rendition of dialog and music but maybe a tad on the dark side.
In the extras department you find a completely superfluous outtake (7 sec), the rather daring German trailer (1.49 min), the German theatrical opening (0.57 min) that only sets itself apart from the one seen on the main feature presented on this DVD by not including the sinister and graphic dream sequence. The German theatrical ending (0.46 min) is almost identical to the one in the main feature, except here the picture freezes before the voice-over fades out. Last, but not least, there are two picture galleries, both presented as a video montage accompanied by music. The first one (2.40 min) consists of lobby cards (mainly nude pictures), the second (4.11 min) of news articles and magazine covers (more nudes), artwork, movie posters, press material and video covers.