Though perhaps less less concerned with the traditional understanding of witchcraft than the namesake films released in 1966 by Cyril Franklin and 1990 by Nicolas Roeg, with its broader scope the Dino De Laurentiis produced anthology The Witches has more to say about the perception of women within and outside society than a more direct approach.
Now released in a new restoration by Arrow Films, The Witches was filmed in 1965 and released in 1967 under the titles Le streghe and Les Sorcières in different territories – though not distributed in the United States at all although it had been licensed by United Artists – the five stories are told by different directors, each of them Italian natives highly regarded within cinema and the broader arts.
Serving as a showcase for the versatile Silvana Mangano, best known to genre audiences for her supporting role as the Reverend Mother Ramallo in David Lynch‘s Dune which was also produced by her husband De Laurentiis, each of the segments sees her in vastly different roles across a range of cinematic styles.
Following the vibrant and playful animated titles, the only part of the film which directly references the trappings of witchcraft yet framed within the hip style of the sixties, from Death in Venice‘s Luchino Visconti, comes La strega bruciata viva, “The Witch Burned Alive,” more symbolic than the title suggests, as beloved starlet Gloria retreats to a ski resort to escape her public life but is expected to entertain the other guests at the chalet.
With exuberant performances of Mediterranean passion, nothing is subtle in this resort of the filthy rich and spoiled, the endless mirrors reflecting their vanity and jealousy, fawning over Gloria one moment in hopes that some of her magic will rub off on them and turning on her the next, the women eager to strip her of her beauty and make her as mortal as they yet unable to compete with the spell she casts over the men.
As much a showcase for costume designer Piero Tosi as Mangano, the segment is also notable for an early screen appearance of Visconti’s then-lover Helmut Berger, credited as Helmut Steinbergher, later to appear in prominent roles for him in The Damned, Ludwig and Conversation Piece, the latter two also featuring Magnano.
From Mauro Bolognini comes Senso civico, “Civic Sense,” a brief and fast moving motorised slapstick piece where Mangano is the unnamed and self-serving driver who volunteers to take an injured man to hospital, the prolific actor, dubbing artist and director Alberto Sordi, the only segment in which she (metaphorically) takes the back seat.
The celebrated Pier Paolo Pasolini offers La Terra vista dalla Luna, “The Earth As Seen From The Moon,” where Magnano is Assurda Cai, object of desire for the recently bereaved Ciancicato Miao (Totò, Italy’s “prince of laughter” in one of his final roles), seeking a new wife for himself and a mother for his teenage son Baciù (Ninetto Davoli, “the great love” of Pasolini’s life). A joyful and absurdist frivolity in which Magnano plays a deaf mute who transforms the hovel of Ciancicato into the palace he said he could not offer her, it is the most dated of the pieces and somewhat indulgent in its length.
Following Franco Rossi’s La siciliana, “The Girl From Sicily,” a brief melodrama of resentment and revenge of the woman Nunzia loved and spurned, is Vittorio De Sica’s Una serata come le altre, “An Evening Like The Others,” as Giovanna ponders her marriage, her husband played by Clint Eastwood in an atypical and almost submissive role of underplayed comedy which United Artists felt would conflict with his image as a leading man and action hero.
An insecure woman of layers and colours, in her dreams Giovanna fantasises of the glamour and adoration of a movie star as she weaves her own, more satisfying, reality, the final incantation in the spell cycle as the film comes full circle to Mangano’s opening role as Gloria, and while the magic of The Witches may be uneven it is certainly deserving of a wider audience.