Prairie Politics: Carlo Lizzani’s Requiescant (1967) – Blu-ray review
(Carlo Lizzani, 1967)
It’s easy nowadays to mock the Italian ‘Spaghetti’ Westerns for simply replacing the clichés of Hollywood with a new set of tropes that quickly became overused and overheated in the Mediterranean sun. Yet it’s worth remembering that – for all the furrowed-brow stand-offs and dodgy dubbing – these films were distinctly odd, radical affairs.
Requiescant is a compelling example of what made the Italians such an interesting choice to claim the Western as their own. Remember how, in The Wild Bunch, the film ends with the American gang going down in a blaze of glory as they gun down a bunch of corrupt Mexicans? Here, pre-empting Peckinpah’s bloodbath by two years, Carlo Lizzani’s film begins with corrupt Americans massacring some Mexican farmers, stealing their land and – crucially – surviving.
That’s a bolder, more revisionist tale than Hollywood would dare tell: revisionist in the sense of being pretty much how things went down in the years after the American Civil War. Lizzani’s American South is a place of unfettered greed, misogyny and racism, ruled over by a pretentious, would-be ‘aristocrat’ whose hollow claims of honour don’t stop him living in a house full of guns, hiring pimps as hired guns or – in the kind of inexplicable but brilliant touch beloved of Italian Westerns – drawing idle sketches of his victims as he watches them be tortured.
Against these villiains, Lizzani gives us a hero far removed even from the laconic avengers of other Spaghetti Westerns. The titular Requiescant (Lou Castel) is an unknowing survivor of the massacre, brought up by a preacher but somehow still in tune with his revolutionary destiny. When he picks up a gun, he fires accidentally but always seems to rid the world of a bad guy or two. So we get a very polite, unassuming killer who gets his name because he always offers a prayer over his victims, Requiescant meaning ‘rest in peace.’
From there, the film unfurls in a manner that is both predictable and yet consistently off-kilter, as exemplified by the random reappearances of a band of Mexican revolutionaries led by, of all people, the maverick Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini in a rare acting role. [Pasolini’s regular star Franco Citti also appears as a bad guy.] The plot moves swiftly, amassing strange details and confounding expectations: by the time it ends, you might well have forgotten the original reason why Requiescant left his adopted parents to go travelling.
It builds into a portrait of the necessity of violent struggle against oppressors – that most 1960s of topics – yet through the lurid prism of Lizzani’s saturated colours, dogged zooms and flair for a set-piece. A barroom game of ‘hangman’ is the film’s stand-out moment, achieving such agonising anticipation in its tantric build-up that it makes Leone look like an impetuous half-ass. In style and content, nothing like this was really being made in the American Western, and barring the odd exception (you sense Tarantino viewed this before making Django Unchained) none really has since.