“Myths do not die, they just get transformed…”
This is perhaps the most significant line in Corrado Farina’s little-seen masterpiece They Have Changed Their Face (1971). There are no prizes for guessing which myth the character who says it represents if I tell you his name is Giovanni Nosferatu, but this is one of its more imaginative transformations. The film wholly inverts the usual metaphor of the vampire who offers seductive decadence and freedom from conventional society. Here, the vampire is conformity itself; capitalism and consumerism are the drain on humanity’s lifeblood and the film’s tone has as much in common with the ’70s paranoia of Network or Soylent Green as it does the gothic stylings of Murnau or Browning.
With the first ever UK screening of the film coming up on September 16th in the London Barbican’s Colour Of Money Season, I shared a few words with Corrado Farina about the history and legacy of his rare, unique film.
Although it won the Golden Leopard Award at Locarno in 1971, They Have Changed Their Face has since been forgotten (even considered lost for a time), appearing at best as a footnote to Farina’s other film Baba Yaga (1973). “It was produced in ‘co-operative’,” explains Farina to me, when I ask how it disappeared so quickly. “This meant giving the main participants shares in the profits which, unfortunately, we never managed to gain. The film was very well received by critics, but in terms of distribution and box-office results it did terribly. Only many years later, thanks to pirate circulation in the 90s on VHS, did it receive a new lease of life.”
Farina has wondered if this belated interest coincides, in Italy at least, with “the latest incarnation of the Engineer Giovanni Nosferatu for many” (Silvio Berlusconi) and it’s not such a far-fetched thought. They Have Changed Their Face, despite being over 40 years old, has a story and a message that resonates through the decades, as impactful now as then…
In it, Giuliano Disperati plays Alberto Valle, middling employee of Auto Avio Motors, a successful car manufacturer. On a workday that starts like any other he is unexpectedly summoned to a meeting with Engineer Giovanni Nosferatu (Adolfo Celi), the mysterious “owner” of the firm. The reclusive Nosferatu has a villa out in the mountains and predictably, when Valle approaches, it’s an autumnal, foggy place, all gravestones and creepy villagers, including a mute wall-eyed geezer and a feral girl dressed in a fur coat and not much else.
Villa Nosferatu lies behind a locked gate and when Valle passes through, he finds the grounds are patrolled by an eerie squad of Fiat 500s that circle menacingly (a clever updating of Dracula’s wolves). Amusingly, Fiat denied Farina the use of any free cars for these scenes – “They were not wrong,” he says. “The fact that we turn them into killer cars does not belong to one of the best examples of marketing!”
Villa Nosferatu itself is populated by just Engineer Nosferatu and his waifish secretary Corrina (Geraldine Hooper, whom giallo fans may recognize as Massimo in Deep Red). When Alberto sits down on a chair, voices project from the walls extolling the virtue of “Plastic Comfort,” the technology that built it. When he takes a shower, more recorded voices promote the value of the artificial additives in the water, designed to boost wellbeing. Dinner is served in a tray where ingredients have been specially mixed for their nutrient value and stripped of all taste (something Nosferatu describes as “gastronomic socialism”!). Hard-line capitalist slogans echo down the corridors late at night, as Nosferatu claims this is the best way to test out how his ad copy will sound.
Alberto is surprised when he is offered a position as the new CEO – with no real justification – but excited by the idea of a promotion. He soon finds, however, that there may be a price to pay and a darker side to realising his ambitions. The more he discovers about Engineer Nosferatu, the weirder things get. An ancient conspiracy to keep humans enslaved by their own consumerism leads – naturally – all the way to Vatican and beyond…
They Have Changed Their Face is a bold and strange film, one that’s still a sobering experience. The haunting atmosphere adds a sense of menace to even the most surreal satirical scenes, unsettling viewers as they’re laughing, and while it’s mostly low-key in tone but there is some bravura showmanship here too (the LSD advert pitch is hysterical and way over the top). Still, the bleak finalé, with its message reinforced by a prophetic Herbert Marcuse epigraph (“Today, terror is called technology”) ensures everyone leaves with a shiver in their spine.
Corrado Farina only made two films and, with both this and Baba Yaga, he uses horror tropes to tell stories that bend the genre about as far as it’ll go without breaking. I ask what drew him to horror. “Rather than strictly horror, I would define them as fantastical, sort of an umbrella term that covers all stories that go beyond reality,” he corrects me. “It can be told through horror, but also with use of grotesque metaphor, dreams, dystopian fantasy… I chose the vampire because I’ve always been fascinated by the myth and its symbolic connotations.”
Shooting in the Piedmont Valleys allowed Farina and crew to capture a suitably vampiric mood. “The foggy atmosphere of the landscapes, either those of the mountain village or those of the garden in the villa, is exactly what I wanted. No artificial smoke could have created the sense of alienation that the fog gives us.”
I was interested to hear any memories of Geraldine Hooper. She was an enigmatic, fleeting player in Italian genre cinema yet always a beguiling one and They Have Changed Their Face is the most prominent role of her career. “It’s true,” Farina concurs, “Geraldine is possibly the most interesting character. It’s curious that in all the few films she acted in (at least the Italian ones) she was always a disquieting, eerie presence. I met her on the set of a film that was never released called Sortilegio [or Sorcery, in English], and even there she was playing a sort of cross between a fairy and a witch. The amusing thing is that away from the set she was a very quiet shy girl, very friendly. I tried to get back in touch with her but wasn’t able to – shame.”
Finally, I ask whether or not he feels things have moved on over the last 40 years. Prior to making his two feature films, Farina worked for years in advertising and I’m interested in whether he believes the points he made about it in They Have Changed Their Face still ring true. “I haven’t changed my point of view. If anything, it’s even more negative. I still consider a certain type of advertising – that which persuades or manipulates, rather than informing – as a flywheel to push humans in directions that are perhaps useful and positive from an economic standpoint, but dangerous and wrong from an ethical and social one. As Erich Fromm might put it, it creates a focus on ‘having’, rather than ‘being’.”
You don’t have to watch TV or click on many websites to see that he still has a point. Clever, modern, accessible and underrated, They Have Changed Their Face is a gem of Italian genre cinema just waiting to be rediscovered. It uses imagery synonymous with the joyful cool of the Swinging Sixties to show us a darkness beneath the glamour – the rotten core of revolution repackaged as conformity. If you’re interested in the period or counterculture in general, this is essential viewing.